New deep-sea cables needed to protect global economy

Engineers say we must diversify the worldwide networks on which the internet depends to secure them against attacks and accidents

URGENT action is needed to diversify the global deep-sea cable networks on which the internet depends, to secure them against attacks and accidents that could lead to economic turmoil.

So says a report that highlights the vulnerability of businesses worldwide to the targeting of "choke points" in subsea communications networks by saboteurs, pirates and thieves.

International internet and telephone links are almost entirely dependent on bundles of fibre-optic cables that span the oceans. "More than 99 per cent of intercontinental data traffic goes via submarine cable rather than satellite," says Alan Mauldin, an analyst at Telegeography Research, a New York-based market research firm. "People don't realise the vast role cables play."

It's time they did, says Karl Rauscher, the former Bell Labs engineer who compiled the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) report presented at the Worldwide Cybersecurity Summit in Dallas, Texas, last week.

The large number of cables passing through choke points, such as the Strait of Malacca near Singapore, the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines, and the Suez Canal, are especially vulnerable, the report says. Damage to the cables at these points could lead to phone networks becoming jammed and internet traffic slowing to a crawl.

Accidents are the commonest cause of disruption, with cables becoming tangled in fishing nets or in ships' anchors. Theft of cables for the valuable metal they contain is a growing problem, and has been a major cause of communications outages in south-east Asia over the past decade. The recent increase in the activity of pirates off the Somali coast led to the planned route of a new cable between Kenya and the United Arab Emirates being moved 200 kilometres to the east.

It is not just key connections in the cable network that are vulnerable, says the report. Specialised cable-repair ships could also be targeted by pirates.

The IEEE report calls for new cables to be laid on different routes to provide back-up to vulnerable points in the network. This is already happening in the eastern Mediterranean, where later this year five new cables will provide rerouteing options (see diagram) . These are being laid following repeated breaks in the link between Europe and the Middle East temporarily cutting communications, the most recent happening last month.

The report proposes the establishment of a global body to govern the undersea cable industry. However, competition between commercial operators might be an obstacle, says Mauldin. "They don't like to share much information," he says.

Paolo Rosa at the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva, Switzerland, backed the creation of a new global body. It would be of particular help to developing nations, he says.

Issue 2760 of New Scientist magazine