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Sustainable Development:Submarine Cables In The Marine Environment

When people think about international communications, they often regard satellites as the primary medium of modern international communications. This is simply not the case. Over 98% of international communications are carried by a relatively small number of fiber optic submarine cables. The confusion is understandable. The idea that bits of data travel at the speed across the ocean depths on unseen cables is hard to comprehend, but it’s true. The tremendous volume of data carried at low cost by modern fibre optic submarine cables dwarfs the limited capacity of higher cost satellites. In fact, the capacity of a single transatlantic cable has increased by a factor of 100,000 in the last 25 years!

Even more unappreciated is the substantial body of scientific research and records that document the interrelationship of submarine cables and the marine environment. The collective impact of this knowledge gap is compounded by the fact that many in government share their misconceptions, even as they fashion ocean policies and regulations that overlook submarine cable history, marine engineering, seamanship, environmental aspects and international law. Not infrequently, these flawed regulatory efforts undercut the viability of the successful submarine cable network as the critical international infrastructure upon which the internet and global economy are based.

A recent whitepaper from the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), titled Submarine Cables and Marine Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) provided information on submarine cables, their contribution to sustainable development, and their relationship to the marine environment to a United Nations Committee tasked with development of an international legally binding instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The white paper was released on 1 August 2016 and presented to the United Nations on 29 August 2016. It is summarized below:

Submarine cables are essential to the modern world’s economic life and social fabric—they are the international paths that connect the internet. Other uses of the ocean—like shipping, fishing and mining—cannot match the contribution of submarine cables to sustainability; and none of these uses can do so with such a neutral effect on the marine environment. In fact, the physical footprint of a submarine cable in the BBNJ area is only 17 to 22 mm in diameter and the total percent of the BBNJ seabed surface covered by all in-service cables is only about 0.00002%. Furthermore, the cables are made up of inert materials (polyethylene, copper, glass, plastic), while the amount of power in a submarine telecom cable is a slight constant DC current of about 0.6 to 1.0 amperes. By comparison, a laptop computer operates on about 3.0 amperes. Let’s look at some of the other positives for submarine cables.

Submarine Cables Underpin Sustainable Development

  • They are critical communications infrastructure carrying more than 98% of international internet, data, video, and telephonic traffic.
  • By comparison, undersea cables dwarf satellites for international communications and are unmatched for their reliability, speed, volume of traffic, and low cost.
  • The Society for World Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), The Continuous Linked Settlement (CLS) Bank, and the U.S. Clearing House Interbank Payment System (CHIPS) all depend exclusively on submarine cables for daily transactions values at several trillions U.S. dollars.
  • With the laying of submarine cables along the east coast of Africa in 2009-2010, only about 22 nations and territories remain isolated from fiber optic cables. These cables have empowered local people to improve their farming and fishing by applying new techniques and accessing regional markets; enhance universal education opportunities with on-line classrooms, resources, and teacher access; and improve medical care provided through telemedicine.
  • The “cloud” of legions of computer servers distributed in data centers worldwide is based on seamless connection via international submarine fiber optic cables.
  • The World Bank estimates that a 10% increase in Broadband Internet Access, contributes to an increase of 1.38% in Gross Domestic Product; submarine cables enable this sustainable growth as submarine cable connections to a country can lift economic prosperity for its people.
  • Submarine cables are important for marine and climate research and scores of cable-enabled projects are now active in the oceans with many more planned for the future for ocean climate monitoring, tsunami warning, and funda mental ocean research.

Submarine Cables are Neutral to the Marine Environment

  • Submarine cables in the BBNJ marine environment have a very small ecological footprint as demonstrated by a substantial peer reviewed literature plus reports and workshops: Recognition of that neutral effect is recorded in The Oceans and the Law of the Sea Report of the Secretary-General; the United Nations’ World Ocean Assessment for 2016; a joint study by the United Nations Environmental Program, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and the ICPC—International Seabed Authority Technical Study No. 14; international multidisciplinary workshops involving multiple leading academic institutions devoted to ocean law and policy; and scores of peer reviewed scientific, engineering, and legal reports.

  • Submarine cables used in the BBNJ area are of a lightweight, non-armored design with a diameter of about 17 to 22 mm, akin to that of a domestic garden hose.

  • Cables are laid on the ocean floor surface (not buried), thus minimizing any disturbance. In other words, cable operations are brief, rare activities in contrast to repetitive and prolonged activities such as fishing and shipping.

  • Cables rarely require any repair in BBNJ where an average of four repairs annually is recorded worldwide in their typical 20- to 30-year life.

  • When a cable is damaged, unlike a pipeline, there is no pollution or oil spill, just lost communication.

  • Routes are carefully chosen to avoid, where possible, marine natural hazards (landslides and turbidity currents, active and inactive volcanoes or seamounts, strong ocean currents), and modern cable routes reflect this historic "tried and true" experience.

  • Not only do submarine cables have a very small carbon footprint, but they also play a key role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions by underpinning teleconferencing as opposed to conference air travel. A 2-day teleconference from New York to Sweden yields 5.7 kg of CO. Compared to an equivalent face-to-face meeting in Sweden involving travel that releases 1,920 kg of CO..

  • Fiber optic cables are made from chemically inert materials with nil environmental impact.

  • Such is the positive and well-documented environmental history of fiber optic cables that the precautionary approach is not required for their use in BBNJ.

  • In contrast to fiber optic cables, submarine high voltage power cables, because of physical transmission and depth limits, weight, and other physical considerations, are not employed in the BBNJ area and none are forecast.

A spider crab touches a remotely operated vehicle during testing and power-up near the Endeavour hot vents (2200 m depth). In a 2009 survey, the ICPC identified at least 34 ocean observation sites that planned or were using submarine cables. Ocean Networks Canada’s 800 km cable based NEPTUNE observatory off Vancouver Island, British Columbia is a standout operational example of such a site. ONC monitors the west and east coasts of Canada and the Arctic to continuously gather data in real-time for scientific research. Using cabled observatories, remote control systems and interactive sensors, and big data management ONC enables evidence-based decision-making on ocean management, disaster mitigation, and environmental protection. ONC is an initiative of the University of Victoria

A spider crab touches a remotely operated vehicle during testing and power-up near the Endeavour hot vents (2200 m depth). In a 2009 survey, the ICPC identified at least 34 ocean observation sites that planned or were using submarine cables. Ocean Networks Canada’s 800 km cable based NEPTUNE observatory off Vancouver Island, British Columbia is a standout operational example of such a site. ONC monitors the west and east coasts of Canada and the Arctic to continuously gather data in real-time for scientific research. Using cabled observatories, remote control systems and interactive sensors, and big data management ONC enables evidence-based decision-making on ocean management, disaster mitigation, and environmental protection. ONC is an initiative of the University of Victoria

Don’t Fix what’s not Broken

The world's undersea fiber optic cable systems are the direct result of private investment, innovation, advanced ocean engineering, and international cooperation based on best practices anchored on the well-regarded and proven provisions of UNCLOS. These must not be undermined. They include, history and well-established custom and practice that provide for the freedom to lay and repair international cables function in balanced harmony with environment as well as provisions to allow for an efficient balance with due regard for other activities such as merchant and fishing vessel operations, pipeline crossings, and deep sea bed mining. In short, the existing governance works.

Submarine cables and marine protected areas are not mutually exclusive; fiber optic cables already exist in such areas with a record of little or no harm, a point that contrasts with other ocean uses (shipping, fishing, oil and gas exploitation, and deep sea bed mining) that impact the marine environment. The record presented in this paper supports an exemption for submarine fiber optic cables from any new legal regime that might be imposed in an implementing agreement for BBNJ.

The International Cable Protection Committee presents its white paper at UN headquarters in New York. Photo courtesy of ICPC.

The International Cable Protection Committee presents its white paper at UN headquarters in New York. Photo courtesy of ICPC.

As a result, the existing provisions in UNCLOS with respect to submarine cables should not be changed or encumbered with unnecessary regulations that could both create unintended consequences and negatively impact the undeniable socio-economic benefits that decentralized submarine cable systems bring to the world. In particular, any environmental impact assessment requirements beyond those existing in article 206 will not be helpful and would place a needless impediment on the operation, expansion, and improved resilience of world’s acknowledged critical cable infrastructure.

With respect to marine protected areas, a solid historical record underscores that fiber optic cables and such protection zones are not mutually exclusive and coexist well today. Applying marine spatial planning to BBNJ to include submarine cables is unnecessary and would undermine the successful and well proven current decentralized systems with its critical route diversity, introduce cybersecurity risks, impede the connection of fiber optic cables to remote island and coastal communities, and reduce needed cables required to provide for alternative paths for restoration in the event of a cable fault.

The Oceans and the Law of the Sea Report of the Secretary General succinctly summed up the conventional wisdom about international submarine cables and sustainable development: “Submarine cables are critical communications infrastructure, being used for more than 98% of international internet, data, and telephone traffic, with only a few States being without fiber connectivity, and many of these having cable projects currently underway. Submarine cables are recognized as vitally important to the global economy and hence to economic growth. By underpinning international communications, their role in providing access to data and information for all peoples is evident.”

Presented to the United Nations

The above-summarized white paper, was the topic of discussion on 29 August 2016 during an event at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, New York. Based on the evidence presented in this technical white paper, it was respectfully submitted that whatever instrument that may emerge from the BBNJ process, submarine cables should be exempted and the current successful legal system provided in UNCLOS for submarine cables should not be undermined. The event was part of the 2nd Session of the Preparatory Committee established by General Assembly resolution 69/292: Development of an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Submarine cables are important for marine research and scores of cable-enabled projects are now active in the oceans.

Submarine cables are important for marine research and scores of cable-enabled projects are now active in the oceans.

With about 45 diplomats and NGOs in attendance, ICPC’s expert panel discussed submarine cables in relation to the environment, cable owners, route surveyors, and ship operators as well as governance of the oceans. The ICPC also supplied samples of deepwater submarine cables and answered questions from attendees. Interested parties are welcome to download ICPC’s white paper and full presentation: https://iscpc.org/news/.

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