Since 2003, a set of parallel fibre-optic cables known as the Svalbard Undersea Cable System has delivered high-speed internet to the Norwegian-administered archipelago from the country’s mainland. Installed with the support of the American and European space agencies to give satellite-receiving stations in Svalbard the bandwith needed to keep up with the increasing amounts of data they were transmitting to the mainland, the connection has also been a boon for Svalbard’s residents and its business: they were among the first in the world to have access to a 4G mobile telephone network. In 2019, a 5G network was set up.
Making the connection double-stranded adds capacity, but it also makes sure that, if one strand fails, the data can keep flowing on the other. Known as redundancy, this type of contingency measure is now showing its worth.
At 4:10am on 7 January, Space Norway, the connection’s owner, discovered a break in one of the cables. Later that day, the approximate location — on a part of the ocean floor where depth suddenly drops off from 300m to 2,700m — was identified, but, as yet, both the cause and the extent of the damage remain unknown.
Space Norway expects it will be able begin the at-sea work necessary to repair the cable sometime next month. Until then, it will be able to make do with the remaining link, but, should that go too, Svalbard would be sent back to the days of low-capacity satellite communication. To reduce the chances that Space Norway itself might do anything to make that happen, it has scaled back non-essential servicing and other operations.
If the break turns out to be someone’s fault, the finger will quickly point to Russia, which, according to Etterretningstjenesten, the Norwegian intelligence agency, is developing the capacity to damage underwater pipelines and cables. Attacks of this nature, it wrote in its annual threat assessment, published in October, could cause considerable disruption, redundancy or no. The same assessment also identified Svalbard as an area of interest for foreign spy agencies. Though Etterretningstjenesten mentioned no countries by name, suspicious minds are already looking Moscow’s way.
Other explanations are less the stuff of spy novels than they are of courtroom drama. The International Cable Protection Committee reckons that about a hundred breaks a year — or about two thirds of all breaks — are caused by anchors or fishing gear. Vessels near a cable at the time of a break can be asked to account for their activities. Those found responsible for damage can be required to pay for the cost of repairs.
In once such case, Tele Greenland sued the owners of a Canadian fishing vessel for CAN$2 million (amounting to about €1.25 million at the time) for two breaks that occurred in its fibre-optic cable in an area where it passes through Canadian fishing grounds.
The owners of the vessel denied that it had been in the area at that time, and that, even if it had, it was only reasonable to expect that there would be some amount incidental contact with the cables in areas where there is a lot of activity. Another complaint the owners had was that cable owners do not consistently update the sea charts mariners are required to refer to.
In some cases, contact can be limited if they are laid in an area where navigation or activity is not permitted. The Svalbard cable, for example, comes ashore in the only no-trawl zone in northern Norway, but there are still plenty of other things that can snag on a cable. During a several month period in 2018 and 2019, the Greenlandic cable broke three times, at a cost of 71.6 million kroner (€9.6 million) to repair. In one instance, a fishing boat was blamed. Another, though, was the result of an iceberg, while the cause of the third remains unidentified.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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