A Time-Tested Solution for Asia’s Damaged Net Cables

SINGAPORE ~ Workers are relying on 19th century technology to fix a very 21st century problem – disruption of the internet traffic that tech-savvy Asia relies on.

Crewmen on boats south of Taiwan are dragging the seabed with grappling hooks at the end of long ropes to recover fiber optic cables damaged in a 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck the region on December 26.

“No electronics involved,” said John Walters, general manager of Global Marine, one of the firms engaged in the repairs. “It’s an old and traditional technique.”

Millions of people across the region, in Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and as far away as Australia, suffered internet and telephone blackouts when the cables, linking Asian countries with the US and beyond, were damaged.

Telecom operators have diverted the traffic to allow service to return to normal but the repair work continues.

“At this point none of those cables have been repaired,” Walters told AFP in an interview.

“We are talking about cable that’s lying on the surface of the seabed down to about 4,000 meters,” said Walters.

Global Marine has two ships in the Bashi Channel and Luzon Strait area, between Taiwan and the Philippines, while other firms had provided four more ships, he said.

The vessels, specially designed to repair submarine cables, are more than 100 meters long and carry about 60 British officers and Filipino crewmen, he said.

They work 24 hours a day but the weather can hinder their progress. Walters said one ship was waiting for 48- to 64-kilometers-an-hour winds to die down in the Bashi Channel. The winds have stirred up 10 to 12 meter waves.

The second Global Marine vessel was closer to Taiwan and had been able to continue work, he said.

After arriving at the scene, they survey the ocean bottom to assess whether the contour has changed, and the degree of sediment movement.

Then the traditional tools are brought out. A rope with a grapnel on the end is played out, down into the depths, and towed over the sea floor until tension registers on a graph on the ship, indicating contact has been made with the cable.

Today’s fiber optic cables are just 21 millimeters in diameter.

“You can understand the magnitude of the difficulty that we have,” said Walters, who has 17 years’ experience.

“What’s key is the speed of the cable ship.”

The grapnel is a metal tool about 46 by 61 centimeters that includes a cutter, like a fine razor blade, and a grabbing tool.

As tension increases and the cable is slowly pulled up, it is cut, grabbed and half of it is hoisted to the surface.

Dropping the grapnel, dragging the seabed and recovering the cable can take about 16 hours, Walters said.

“It’s a tried and tested method.”

Once the severed half of the cable is on board the boat, debris is cleared from the damaged end, it is tested, sealed and the end boiled off. Then it is attached to a buoy on the water surface while the process is repeated for the second half of the cable before both halves are spliced together and dropped back to the ocean floor.

Even before the December 26 earthquake, Global Marine had faced a busy year, with about 20 repairs after damage from fishermen or anchors. All those ruptures were fixed using the old grapnel method, he said.

Global Marine has remotely operated vehicles, a type of underwater robot, but they cannot operate below a depth of about 2,000 meters and are usually employed to bury a repaired cable in shallower water, he said.

They are not quicker than grapnels, either.

“We’ve learned our lessons, if you like, from history,” Walters said, whose UK-based firm traces its origins back to 1850, when the first international submarine cable was laid between Britain and France.

Grapnel design has evolved over the past century, giving operators a variety of tools to choose from depending on the underwater terrain, he said.

A single cable repair can take about seven days but on this mission, most operators are quoting a 10-day repair period, he said. With about eight separate cable systems in the waters off Taiwan, and close to 18 faults caused by the earthquake, repairs will take time.

“We anticipate that all of these systems should be repaired – we’re talking about end February,” Walters said.

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One Response to “A Time-Tested Solution for Asia’s Damaged Net Cables”

  1. blackblog. » Connectivity Singapore to Germany Says:

    […] First of all: It really sucks. These days the connection is so incredibly slow, that working via interactive protocols (e.g. ssh ) is virtually impossible – A ping roundtrip is around 350-450ms. This is actually not too bad, but jitter and loss really get me crazy – Sometimes connection is stuck for about a minute. In November lag & loss were quite acceptable – It was even possible to upload stuff with about 16kb/s – But right now were down to less than 2kb/s and frequent disconnects cause of too high packet loss. First I thaught, that the Uplink of NTU is just packed, so I took my Laptop and tried it at other locations. But even when you get on the net via Wireless@sg or other carriers, the situation is quite the same. Most of the slowdown seems to be related to the Taiwan earthquake in late December 2006, which cut down many fiber optic links in the Taiwan straits. I just found some news, that none of the cables has been restored yet. Other bloggers in the region also complain about lag & packet loss… […]