Capacity - - Contents - Tim Phillips

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.”

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