Undersea telecoms cables face growing risks: report

LONDON (Reuters) - Investors should urgently diversify the web of undersea cables that serve as the world’s information and banking arteries to address soaring demand and piracy concerns and reduce the risk of catastrophic outages.

So says a report by a multinational research project that calls for the building of global backup routes for the submarine network that carries almost all international communications, including financial transactions and Internet traffic.

The report’s main author, Karl Rauscher of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an international professional body, told Reuters changes should be made “before we have to learn the hard way.”

“This report is trying to have a September 10 mindset, where you actually do something about what you know on September 10 to avoid a September 11 situation,” Rauscher, who was an adviser to the U.S. government on cyber security after the September 11 attacks, said.

An executive summary of the report made available to Reuters says that the current probability of a global or regional failure of the network is very low, but is “not zero.”

“The impact of such a failure on international security and economic stability could be devastating...There is no sufficient alternative back-up in the case of catastrophic loss of regional or global connectivity.”


“Satellites cannot handle the volume of traffic -- the available capacity is not even close,” the report says.

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“It is unclear if civilization can recover from the failure of a technology that has been so rapidly adopted without a backup plan ... Without (the network), the world’s economic financial market would immediately freeze.”

The project, managed by the IEEE and the EastWest Institute think tank, cites the “cable-dense” Luzon Strait south of Taiwan, the Strait of Malacca and the Red Sea among several “chokepoints” that funnel important cable paths together.

“A single disaster in such an area could cause catastrophic loss of regional and global connectivity,” the report says.

“Insatiable thirst for bandwidth is accompanied by an ever-growing dependence on inter-continental communications, which are nearly entirely supported by undersea cables.”

The study said it taken account of numerous trends including skyrocketing bandwidth demand, increased piracy on the high seas and “growing concerns of terrorist activity worldwide.”

“Increased hostile activity around the world requires the undersea communications cable industry to enhance its preparedness for attacks on its specialized cable ships and critical infrastructure,” it said.

Recent failures include breaks in three submarine cables linking Europe and the Middle East, which disrupted Internet and international telephone services in parts of the Middle East and South Asia in December 2008.


In January 2008, a breakdown in an undersea cable network disrupted Internet links to Egypt, India and Gulf Arab countries and a December 2006 earthquake off southern Taiwan hit cables and slowed Internet and telephone traffic across parts of Asia.

The study’s concern is not so much that the reliability of the system is declining, but that the world’s dependence has grown so great -- and on a network lacking global backup.

“What would you do without connectivity for a day, a week, or a month?” said Rauscher, also executive director of Bell Labs Network Reliability and Security Office of Alcatel-Lucent.

Rauscher presented the report, entitled the Reliability of Global Undersea Communications Cable Infrastructure, to 40 ambassadors in Washington on Monday and it will be studied again at an EastWest cyber security conference in Dallas in May.

In a foreword to the report, U.S. Federal Reserve chief of staff Steve Malphrus said the financial sector’s stability was increasingly linked to its understanding of operational risk. He wrote: “When communications networks go down, the financial services sector does not grind to a halt. It snaps to a halt.”

Editing by Lin Noueihed