Tim Phillips talks OTT
“None of the world’s telecommunication cable systems possess even the simplest sensory instrumentation to monitor anything other than their own internal state of health. They are deaf, dumb and blind to their external environment and natural hazards,” says an ITU report, snappily entitled “The scientific and societal case for the integration of environmental sensors into new submarine telecommunication cables.”
So far, so obvious. Journalists know this because every time a region loses connectivity, we write a week’s worth of articles in which we speculate on what might have happened. The companies that laid the cable know this because they are phoned constantly by the media, asking which terrorist group, earthquake or hungry shark has stolen, broken or eaten the internet.
But the rest of the report is much more exciting than its title, because it lays out a plan to create a global network of sensory instrumentation that is practical, (relatively) cheap and extremely useful to mankind, but the introduction of which would involve such an unimaginable level of process-based complexity that you would have to wonder who would be reckless enough to try to make it happen.
This apparently describes professor Bruce M. Howe, Research Professor and Chair of the Department of Ocean and Resources Engineering in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, who heading the Joint Task Force of The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO/IOC), and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to create the SMART Cables project.
This task force, at least half of whose resources must be consumed in creating paragraphs like the one above, has a genuinely inspiring ambition. The vision is to attach simple environmental sensors to new undersea cables, spaced 50km-75km apart, which would be able to monitor temperature, pressure and acceleration. These sensors exist.
But legals and logisticals are problematic, as SMART requires many governments, cable operators and the scientific community to cooperate, and needs someone to find the cash. “This project has every possible stakeholder you can imagine,” Prof Howe admits, ruefully. It’s not so much a public-private partnership as a public-private-publicprivate-public-private partnership.
The cost of adding the sensors to a new cable rollout would be about 5% to 10% of the cable’s cost, and the benefits would be shared. Operators would know more about undersea conditions, which would make it easier to predict, detect and remediate their cable faults. Governments get much better early warning data on undersea seismic activity, the sort of early is it warnings that everyone calls for after a tsunami has devastated a coastal area. And we’d all learn far more about climate change, because for the first time we could monitor ocean currents and water temperature at the sea bed. To do all this globally, with equipment that could last a century, “would end up costing about the price of one satellite,” prof Howe explains, “I see it as similar to space exploration. After 40 or 50 years of governments leading, private companies take over.”
Representing those private companies in the task force is Nigel Bayliff, Owner & Principal Consultant at SIN Medida Limited: “I would hope we can craft the right conditions to measure the least understood frontier on earth,” he says, The next step toward reality? What prof Howe calls a “wet test”. Costing somewhere between $2million and $5million, 3-4 sensors could be deployed as a proof of concept. Or, more ambitiously, a short cable which doesn’t involve too many governments and operators might be equipped. Or, more negatively, governments could be jarred into action when we face another natural disaster, and we are confronted with the reality that our early warning systems for undersea seismic activity are still, in prof Howe’s understated words, “not robust”.
“Operators want a concrete business plan, and governments will have to pay. and we all know how difficult it is to get them facing in the same direction. But if this mitigated the costs of one tsunami by 10%, it would pay for itself.”