Submarine Cable Maintenance: Keeping the Lifeline Operating

Representative OSI C-Portal image showing an In-Service Submarine Cable System as-laid route, cable crossings, bathymetry data and satellite imagery. AIS local antenna and satellite data are streamed live and are programmed to interact with early warning Geo-Fence boundaries.

Submarine cable system owners must face the realities of cable maintenance but are sometimes unprepared.

In times of urgent need – such as a during an unplanned network outage – clear channels of responsibility, troubleshooting procedures, problem escalation and even awareness of spares availability and locations are just some of the datapoints that could be needed to expedite a network’s return to service and revenue generation. And the information and procedures had better be up to date, accessible by decision makers and have a well-trained and practiced team backing it all up.

Cable Maintenance Authority services are, therefore, a necessity, yet the expertise required is often not available in-house, or not available yet in-house. Sometimes the stakeholder interfaces required for a successful subsea cable maintenance authority function aren’t shared with other network functions. In addition, the expertise required can become stale if not utilized regularly, yet regular utilization within a single network group usually isn’t possible.

Given this reality, Ocean Specialists Inc. (OSI) has for the past two years been providing customers with a Cable Maintenance Authority service where we can take responsibility for the complete Maintenance Authority scope, or can work to develop a scope specific to a cable operator’s needs.

Although it is still in its early years, the 21st Century is clearly becoming the Century of the Internet. In an incredibly short time, the Internet has seemingly changed everything. It has become the world’s critically-important medium for conducting government and business activities, enabling education and health care services, and providing entertainment for billions of people.

Submarine fiber optic cables make the Internet possible. It took a period of about 15 years at the end of the 20th Century to build out a submarine cable network linking the world’s major business, political and communications centers. But that was not enough to keep up with the growing impact of the Internet on people’s lives. In the last decade, the web of cables has extended its reach globally, linking vast areas of the developing world, as well as some of the most remote and isolated communities on earth. They represent for many, quite simply, a lifeline.

The importance of high-speed Internet access can’t be understated. It is now considered a basic human right – a necessity for economic development and social engagement. Without the Internet, communities will be left behind, missing out on the opportunities to improve quality of life.

Just as important as having access to the Internet is keeping that access at all times. The danger of being served by a single submarine cable has been demonstrated again and again as outages cause the loss of Internet access and result in devastating economic losses. Even diversity through multiple cables does not guarantee undisrupted access. Multiple, simultaneous cable cuts still happen, while single cable outages sometimes eliminate enough capacity that the service on the remaining cables can be unreliable.

As the Internet and the submarine cables that give it global access grow in importance, the issue of cable maintenance has taken on a growing importance as well. Cable maintenance and cable protection have always been a part of the submarine cable picture, but as Internet traffic grows, its impact on government, business and society grows as well. Outages are not just annoying for residential users who can’t check their emails; they have caused airline services to stop, emergency communications to shut down, important events to be cancelled and other problems that can have an impact on national economies.

Any approach to cable maintenance must be comprehensive in scope – dealing with the myriad of issues individually is not an effective approach. There are five key points in OSI’s Cable Maintenance Authority service:

  • System Maintenance Administration Services
  • Preventive Maintenance and Risk Mitigation
  • Wet & Dry Spares Inventory Management
  • Network Outage Response, Repair & Return-to-Service
  • Document Management and Control

System Maintenance Administration Services include Procedures (establishing and documenting procedures and processes for all maintenance and repair processes), Financial Controls (budgeting and O&M disbursement management), Document Management (the establishment of a document access and control system for all relevant system documentation), Supplier Management (periodic performance reviews and re-bidding, as well as system warranty and support liaison, System Performance (annual review and response drill coordination and execution, Cable Crossings (evaluation and approval of crossing requests) and Permit Management (compliance, modifications and applications).

Preventative Maintenance and Risk Mitigation are vital components of any cable maintenance plan. Cable Awareness – seabed user outreach, system information distribution and navigational publication updates – are critically important for the protection of any submarine cable. Geo-fencing is a relatively recent defense strategy for cables that utilizes Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology. This allows OSI to monitor and identify ship traffic in early warning alert zones near the cable, with real-time smart phone alerts to NOC engineers and other key staff.

As part of Inventory Management, cable depot audits monitor quality of services and ensure safety and security. Inventory control tracks valuable assets such as wet and dry plant spares.

All of the above-described services and documentation are managed and delivered via OSI’s C-PortalTM, an AWS Cloud-based platform which combines the power of an ESRI ArcGIS database with the ease of a web browser. The portal allows key OSI and system owner staff to access all system documentation, real-time AIS, and other relevant data feeds, all through a web browser interface that allows geospatially-accurate display of the system cable, other cables and pipelines in the region, all crossings and wet plant elements. One of the key advantages of C-Portal is the ability to access all relevant documentation, charts, seabed and other information from anywhere in the world with secure login access, thus allowing both the system owners and OSI staff to be fully informed, and take action, as quickly as possible.

In spite of all the precautions that can be taken to prevent a cable outage, the reality is that outages can still happen, especially in a turbulent ocean environment. When a fault occurs, cable operators must be ready to respond quickly to assess the nature and severity of the fault, initiate a testing plan, determine the required response and initiate the marine maintenance provider.

Under OSI’s Cable Maintenance Authority service all aspects of the repair response are actively managed, including contractual oversight, establishing baseline repair data and document control. If the fault occurs in shallow water, an ad-hoc repair solution design may be appropriate and OSI can provide budgeting and project management, local asset provider sourcing and permit processing. Once the repair is completed, spares must be replenished and system documentation updated and distributed.

Limiting the downtime of a submarine cable is a necessity in today’s world. It is essential to have a well thought out plan to reduce the likelihood of outages and to minimize their impact when they do happen. Cable Maintenance Authority services should start early in the development process of any cable system. As the System Owner, having a qualified and experienced Maintenance Authority Service Team is critical to protecting your submarine infrastructure investment.

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