The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has arrested and charged the master of the cargo ship Maersk Surabaya over damage inflicted on a section of a subsea telecommunications cable connecting Australia to Singapore.
The Australia Singapore Cable (ASC), operated by local telco Vocus, is a fibre cable system that claims a capacity of up to 60Tbps and stretches 4,600 kilometres between Perth and Singapore, with connections to Christmas Island and Indonesia.
On Sunday 1 August 2021, a section of the subsea communications cable in the Perth Submarine Cable Protection Zone, approximately 10 kilometres offshore from Perth’s City Beach, was disabled after being damaged.
The cable break impacted services passing into and out of Perth, however services between Christmas Island, Jakarta and Singapore remained operational.
Police claim the ship had been anchored approximately 500 metres from the protection zone, and allegedly dragged its anchor through the area in high winds, snagging and damaging the 20-metre-deep cable.
The AFP said in a statement published on 21 August that the step to charge the 59-year-old container ship master is believed to be the first prosecution by the agency for the alleged offence.
The arrest came after the AFP received reports on 3 August that a passing vessel had allegedly damaged the cable, causing approximately $1.5 million damage.
A subsequent investigation by AFP officers in Western Australia and Victoria resulted in the arrest of the cargo vessel master, who is a Ukrainian national.
The mariner is alleged by the AFP to have engaged in negligent conduct as the master of a maritime vessel, which resulted in damage to the Australian Singapore Cable, contrary to section 37 of schedule 3A of the Telecommunications Act 1997.
According to the AFP, the offence carries a potential maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment and a $40,000 fine.
AFP detective superintendent Graeme Marshall said that damage to a subsea cable can have serious financial consequences for both the cable operator and for customers who experience reduced connectivity and data access.
“The protection zone is clearly marked on maritime charts and all vessel masters should ensure vessels operate in a manner which does not interfere with critical communications infrastructure,” Marshall said.
Vocus, in partnership with marine repair partner SubCom, moved quickly to repair the cable following the cut.
The telco's operations command centre, field technicians and submarine cable maintenance partners were deployed to the Perth cable landing station, where optical testing confirmed a break to the cable approximately 10 kilometres off the coast, at a water depth of 27 metres.
Vocus IP services and traffic were re-routed where possible and remained operational as traffic destined for Asia was temporarily routed through Australia’s east coast via Hong Kong and the United States, Vocus said.
SubCom’s repair vessel, the CS Reliance, was located nearby off the coast of Perth, allowing it to be re-deployed to commence repairs to the ASC, according to Vocus.
The CS Reliance began repairs on Thursday 5 August, four days after the break occurred.
By Monday 9 August, four days after repairs began, the south side of the break had been spliced, while a section of new cable was laid toward the north end of the break.
According to Vocus, bad weather in the region slowed repairs as the CS Reliance temporarily anchored for the safety of the crew, with repairs recommencing on Wednesday 11 August.
The final splice reconnecting the north and south ends of the cut section occurred on board the CS Reliance in the early hours of the morning on Friday 13 August.
Vocus commenced testing of the cable soon after, and normal services were restored on 13 August.
Just days ago, Vocus revealed it had landed a A$100 million deal to build a submarine cable connection between the Northern Territory and Southeast Asia.
The new 1,000km cable will link the Australia Singapore Cable (ASC) to the North West Cable System (NWCS) in Port Hedland, Western Australia, thereby providing the final piece of the Darwin-Jakarta-Singapore Cable (DJSC).