Over 95 per cent of international data, internet and communication are transmitted by wires deep at the bottom of the ocean known as submarine cables. These are the cables that enable people to stream videos and audio from Facebook, Boomplay, Netflix, YouTube, Periscope or any channel or download limitless volumes of documents from Google, Amazon and many others, effortlessly, with little delays and at an affordable rate. They also power government to government communications.
The importance of submarine cables is underscored by the lack of capacity of satellite technologies to handle the communications requirements of the modern digital economy and society. According to a 2017 report by the Policy Exchange, in a single day, submarine cables carry some $10 trillion financial transfers, process 15 million financial transactions as well as transport a vast amount of data, from emails to classified government to government information. Hence, any threat to them in essence is a threat not just to the operators but to the collective.
There are currently about 1.5 million kilometres of optic subsea cables globally. The first submarine cables was laid in 1858, a telegraphic cable connecting Britain to the USA. The next generation of submarine cables in terms of technology, were the coaxial and copper cables which were used by telephone companies. The TAT-1 (Transatlantic No. 1) was the first transatlantic telephone cable system and it was laid in 1956. Before 2009, only 16 African countries were connected to a submarine cable system. That number has since increased to 26 cable systems. As at 2016, submarine cable capacity reached 33 countries. About five of the cable networks are powering connectivity in West Africa. These include MainOne, Glo 1, WACS, ACE, and SAT-3. These cables also land on Nigeria’s shores.
A single submarine cable has capacity of 30 million voice channels which could translate to a minimum of 30 million telephone calls. Cumulatively the five cables have a capacity of over 40TBPS international connectivity. Currently, countries within the region are utilizing less than 10 per cent of this capacity. One major reason is the inadequate terrestrial fiber network required to haul internet and communication traffic across the landscape of the respective countries, and this is attributable to a number of other challenges. Regardless, these submarine cables are the major arteries of communications of the modern world, and they face significant threats on a daily basis.
Submarine cables are largely owned and installed by private communications companies, which makes them prone to government neglect. Government neglect is also responsible for the absence of a legal framework towards the protection of these assets. Even the current United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is seen as deficient in ensuring the security of undersea cables.
Experts have noted that 70 per cent of the threats to submarine cables are not from natural causes but from external aggression. These threats fall into two categories namely fishing and shipping activities. Fishing activities include harmful practices like bottom trawling. Bottom trawling is an industrial fishing method where a large net with heavy weights is dragged across the seafloor, scooping up everything in its path – from the targeted fish to incidentally cutting fibre optic cables in the process or snagging at them in such a way that it causes a shunt. In the case of shipping, anchorage which happens when ships drop their anchors where there are submarine cables and it lands on them. In 2008, there was an Italy-Egypt incident in which shipping traffic cut three cables, reducing connectivity by 80 per cent.
Other threats include dredging activities and off-shore activities in the oil and gas industry; where oil and gas installation, production and maintenance activities occur near or along cable paths it could result in damage to the subsea optic fibre infrastructure.
Threats from natural disasters include submarine earthquakes and landslides, waves and ocean currents, tsunami and storm surges; extreme weather (e.g hurricanes); icebergs or volcanic activity; climate change among others.
Policing submarine cables should not be a responsibility of the companies that installed them alone; neither should it be left solely to the government. A more effective approach is the community-led approach. The approach will require that not only the companies and government buys into submarine cable protection but that everyone see it as their responsibility.
While championing a legal framework that guarantees submarine cables as national assets, for instance is a priority, securing the buy-in of indirect stakeholders like fishermen, shipping companies, agencies of government and anyone that has any form of business along lines where submarine cables run is also critical.
A group such as the Association of Submarine Cable Operators of Nigeria (ASCON) has its work cut out already. Established by the five submarine cable operators in Nigeria and West Africa, we are responsible for not only lobbying government for an effective protective law but also initiate the education of people that often stand between operators and an efficient submarine cable operation.
Part of the measures for government could be establishing a cable protection zone (CPZ) around the West African coast lines like the Australian government has done. The CPZs essentially bans certain types of anchoring and fishing, require greater disclosure by any vessels inside them, enjoy coast guard monitoring and carry significant penalties for breaches of rules. Closely related to this is the adoption of Automatic Identification System (AIS) for monitoring Vessel movement around Cable Operator trigger zones.
Government and private sector entities must also work together to execute and develop laws criminalizing the destruction of undersea cable infrastructure. It is only when the government is a deliberate and thoughtful stakeholder in protecting these critical national assets that operators can be motivated to build complementary terrestrial infrastructure and the region can fully attain digital transformation.
Ifeloju Alakija is the President, Association of Submarine Cable Operators of Nigeria (Head, Regulatory Services, MainOne) and Bolaji Mudashir S. is the General Secretary, ASCON (Technical Manager ACE/Dolphin).