Four separate reported and confirmed failures of undersea cables serving the Middle East and North Africa over the last couple of weeks have inspired conspiracy theories as to what caused this rare coincidence.
Whether any have validity, the fact is that undersea cable networks -- despite multiple layers of built-in reliability -- are highly vulnerable to deliberate attacks. As the economic importance of undersea systems grows, risks from sabotage must be considered.
Matt Walker, senior analyst at Ovum noted that undersea cable networks are an under-appreciated but essential part of modern life. They now carry well over 95 per cent of the world's international telecommunications traffic.
As trade rises as a share of global GDP -- it's now more than 30 per cent -- reliable connectivity becomes a key ingredient of growth. Some drivers of economic growth -- outsourcing, offshoring -- would be almost impossible without it. As such, the undersea cable networks that support this connectivity are clearly vital to global commerce.
At the same time, cables are almost impossible to secure. Cable landing stations are often located in remote areas and usually staffed with a handful of technical employees, not teams of armed guards. Moreover, a typical transPacific system stretches around 20,000km.
Even if the private cable owners increase security for the "dry plant" segment of such networks, securing the wet plant is problematic. Cable owners work hard to minimise accidental damage, making cable routes available to those that need to know, such as fishermen, navies, and research vessels.
Cable routes also deliberately avoid, as far as possible, such hazards as earthquake-prone zones and rocky seabeds. However, there is an unspoken assumption that the networks are safe from deliberate human sabotage. The recent spate of cable failures in a politically volatile region has called this assumption into question.
In deep water, natural causes and/or cable equipment failures dominate: human causes are rare. Hence, when cables fail in deep water, usually a natural and detectable event is the cause, as with the late 2006 earthquake near Taiwan, the last quake to cause multiple simultaneous outages. An earthquake, albeit small (magnitude 4.8) was reported on February 2 in the Persian Gulf and could have affected cables there.
Len Rust is publisher of The Rust Report