International Cable Protection Committee

Sharing the seabed in harmony with others

The International Cable Protection Committee represents 97% of the world’s subsea telecom cables.

The ICPC has more than 175 MEMBERS in over 60 COUNTRIES and has the vision of being the premier international submarine cable authority through providing leadership, knowledge and guidance on issues related to submarine cable security and reliability.

Latest News

Article: “Internet Infrastructure: Where foreign affairs and the climate crisis intersect”

Friday, 06 September 2019

ICPC Vice Chairman, Graham Evans and ICPC Member organisation, XSite Modular contributed to the following article written by Nicole Starosielski, titled: ‘Internet Infrastructure: Where foreign affairs and the climate crisis intersect.’ The article was first published with on 30 July 2019.

When most people think about struggles over the global internet, platforms and content come to mind: the $5 billion fine levied at Facebook for privacy violations. Antitrust law and Google and Amazon’s corporate monopolies. The discrimination of artificial intelligence. The politics of content moderation and data governance.

Occasionally, hardware surfaces, as in the case of Australian, Japanese and US bans on Chinese telecom manufacturers. More often, infrastructure is relegated to the background. The expansive web of cables, data centres, internet exchanges, cloud services and content delivery networks are invisible to most users. As a result, they are less often a target of governance.

This is especially true for the most international of all internet infrastructure: undersea cables. Cable systems are the backbone of the global internet. They carry almost all internet traffic across continents and underneath oceans. They facilitate transactions between financial centres. They are the means by which air transportation and shipping is coordinated. And they transport the bulk of all messages between people around the world. Undersea cables are a primary medium of foreign relations.

Cables have supported global interconnection — and re-shaped global trade, relationships and policies — since the nineteenth century. But today the sheer amount of digital information circulated means that nations are highly dependent on cables. When the Polynesian islands that make up Tonga were subject to a set of cable breaks this past January, it disrupted banking, tourism, transportation and business. Being severed from the cable network can produce a rift in a nation’s social and economic stability. If climate change threatens the cable network, it could transform all international relations.

The internet under water

As National Geographic reported last year in “The Internet is Drowning,” climate change poses a threat to the internet’s infrastructure. At first, undersea cables might seem an exception, offering a secure means of communication in rising waters. But cables, like so many other communications systems, are vulnerable to environmental changes and extreme weather.

Cables are susceptible both along their winding subsea routes and at their coastal landing points. Many cable stations, the places where systems terminate after coming ashore, were built before climate change was a consideration in builders’ minds. Stations are often located near the coast, sometimes just a short walk from the beach. Some extend underground well below sea level in Cold War-style bunkers. Some exist in remote areas, where human access could become impossible in extreme weather. Amy Marks of XSite Modular, a company that manufactures telecommunications infrastructure, argues that changing weather patterns are “a real threat for cable landing stations.”

But the undersea network won’t be the first casualty of climate change, by far. Compared to other built architectures, cable landing stations are some of the most secure locations in the internet’s infrastructure. There’s surveillance. There are fences and concrete walls. There are backup generators and batteries in case the power goes out. In some cases, cable stations have become places of refuge for employees when local power and water shut off. In any given community, the cable station is likely to be one of the safest places to be. Marks recounts that in 2018 an XSite Modular cable station in Tinian, near Guam, even made it through a direct hit by a Category 5 super typhoon without any damage.

But even these hardened infrastructures — with their backup generators and insulated systems — eventually require people and power to function. The global network cannot be sustained without the grid. As the environment changes, the grid fails and people are subject to floods and fires, the cable station, too, will be exposed to the elements. In the process, so will the international connections that it supports.

Escaping to outer space?

Cables still carry almost all internet traffic, but there’s been some recent hype about the return of satellite. SpaceX’s Elon Musk plans to launch close to 12,000 internet-delivering satellites. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is a broadband system with over 3,000 satellites. OneWeb promises to finally give everyone access to reliable, high-speed internet. These projects are the beginning of an internet space race, all taking place in the low-Earth orbit, less than 2,000 km above the planet’s surface.

Although these satellites extend service to locations that would be difficult, if not impossible, to reach by undersea cables, they do not approach the amount of capacity cables provide. They are not an alternative internet backbone. At the recent SubOptic conference, Tim Stronge and Alan Mauldin of the research firm Telegeography conducted an analysis of the competition. Even with the many satellites planned, they showed that space systems are unlikely to match — or even come close to — the undersea network. For now, and in the future, the global economy, international relations and digital exchanges will all remain tied to a communications system that rests on the ocean floor and which is subject to changes in terrestrial and oceanic conditions.

Securing the system

The cable industry is aware of climate change — and many people have started researching ways to make the system greener. These include decreasing cables’ power consumption, planning for solar and wind power, and reducing the energy use of massive cable laying ships. There are even science cables deployed as a means of tracking ocean conditions and, by extension, the effects of climate change. Cable owners have also begun to think about protecting networks themselves from climate change.

Historically, cable protection has been driven by the telecommunications industry rather than governments, even though many governments have declared cables “critical infrastructure.” Cables have generally benefitted both from their relative invisibility to policymakers and from the freedoms granted to them under the Law of the Sea. The International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), the organization dedicated to protecting the cable system, has tackled a growing wave of new threats — and not just climate change. There have been conflicts with the expanding array of other seabed users, from offshore energy operators to deep-sea miners.

The acceleration of global shipping means that more boats can drop anchor on cables in shallow landing zones. The disruption of cables by anchors, which occurs regularly, remains difficult to prevent, although redundancy in the overall system keeps these disruptions from being felt.

The ICPC, using peer-reviewed, evidence-based data, has also identified a number of potential climate change related threats, beyond the obvious impacts on coastal infrastructure. Laying cables depends on a stable sea. As chairman of the ICPC Graham Evans describes, “more vigorous sea conditions will influence cable laying and maintenance operations.” Greater instability in the seabed, whether caused by stronger storms or coastal flooding, could also disrupt networks. Human activities are changing with the climate, and people might begin fishing and anchoring in previously protected cable zones.

At the same time such threats have increased, governments have also begun to assert sovereignty more strongly over (and through) network infrastructure. These range from Russia’s disconnection test, to intentional internet blackouts (for example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq, among others), to the splitting of Yemen’s internet, to establishing internet exchanges to keep data local. Internet infrastructure is not only the medium of global interconnection, it is also a means of asserting national interests.

Even as governments attempt to influence and stake a claim over the internet, they rarely perceive the complexity of the threats that might undermine it, especially the threat of climate change to cable infrastructure. There is little coordinated effort among governments to shore up the ICPC’s efforts or plan for the security of the system as a whole. As a result, the vulnerability of cables to climate change and other risks are increasingly of concern to states as well.

ICPC Congratulates ISA on the 25th Anniversary of Its Establishment

Friday, 26 July 2019

LYMINGTON, United Kingdom—The International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), the world’s preeminent organisation devoted to protection of submarine cables, offered its congratulations to the International Seabed Authority (ISA) on the 25th anniversary of its founding. Although it does not regulate submarine cables, the ISA plays a key role in ocean governance as the regulator and developer of deep seabed mining in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ), an activity that must be coordinated with submarine cables.

Both the ICPC and the ISA depend on the oceans law framework established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—specifically, the ICPC for high-seas freedoms to install and repair submarine cables and the ISA for its existence and framework for developing deep seabed mining.

In a letter to ISA Secretary-General Mr Michael Lodge, ICPC’s leadership expressed the following: ‘We congratulate you, the Secretariat staff, and leaders of the Authority’s other organs for creating a robust and expert institution devoted to the development of mineral resources in the deep ocean with a minimum of environmental harm, and one open to engagement with other stakeholders. Submarine cables and seabed mining—two of the principal industries operating in the deep ocean—must continue to coordinate and cooperate to deliver their respective benefits to the world’s peoples.’

The ICPC and ISA concluded a memorandum of understanding in 2010 to further cooperation between the two organisations and their associated industries. ICPC delegations regularly attend ISA annual sessions in Kingston, Jamaica, where the ISA is headquartered, and ISA representatives have also attended ICPC Plenary meetings. In October 2018, the ICPC and ISA jointly sponsored a workshop in Bangkok, Thailand to develop practical tools for coordinating between submarine cable operators and mining contractors.

2019 ICPC Plenary: History Made in San Diego, California

Thursday, 06 June 2019

LYMINGTON, United Kingdom—Under the theme ‘Critical Infrastructure across the Oceans—protecting submarine cables and the marine environment,’ the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) held its largest Plenary meeting in the organisation’s history with a diverse submarine cables and related industry audience of about 150 delegates from 14-16 May 2019 in San Diego, California USA.

The annual ICPC Plenary was an excellent opportunity to engage with submarine cable owners, suppliers, installers, surveyors, academics and service providers regarding the planning, installation, operation, protection and maintenance of submarine telecommunications and power cables worldwide.

Day 1 included two presentations focused on offshore wind energy and its interaction with other seabed users. Throughout the day, presentations ranged from submarine cable security, repair times, natural hazards, cable burial and growing concerns about deep seabed mining with the potential to harm existing submarine cable networks. Presentations covering the ongoing Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) negotiations were followed by a lively question and answer session. Day 2 covered topics such as armour wire protection for submarine cables, distributed fibre sensing, marine maintenance and submarine cable law. Day 3 included insightful presentations discussing the protection of marine cultural heritage and natural resources, enhancing network resilience and the coexistence of offshore energy and submarine cables. Towards the end of day, the winner of the ICPC-sponsored 2018 Rhodes Academy submarine cables writing contest, presented: “Protection of Submarine Cables against Acts of Terrorism.”

Newly elected ICPC Chairman, Malcom Eccles of Basslink reacted: ‘This year’s Plenary was an outstanding event. The agenda was full of diverse subject matter from distinguished invited speakers and experts from ICPC Member organisations. I am very proud to be part of a group of individuals who all want the same thing—the protection of submarine cables worldwide from both man-made and natural hazards.”

The 2019 Plenary was also a place to recognise the outgoing ICPC Marine Environmental Adviser, Professor Lionel Carter for his 16 years of outstanding service to the submarine cable community. After a standing ovation from the delegation, Lionel ‘passed the baton’ to newly appointed Dr Michael Clare (National Oceanography Centre Southampton) who took up the role on 1 June 2019. During the Plenary, Dr Clare also presented: “New direct measurements of powerful seafloor hazards provide insights for cable routing and design.”

If you were unable to attend the 2019 ICPC Plenary, please visit the 2019 Plenary Highlights page. If interested in participating in next year’s ICPC Plenary, to be held in Spain, be sure to submit an abstract in response to the ICPC Plenary Call for Papers that will be issued later this year.

The 2020 ICPC Plenary will take place in Madrid, Spain from 28-30 April in the Novotel Madrid Center hotel.

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