Sri Lanka exploits India’s inefficiency to anchor subsea cable ambulance fleet

Posted on March 30, 2014  /  3 Comments

Asian countries, despite being located in the world’s largest landmass, are interconnected through submarine optical fiber cable networks. Ciena Corp. has found that a terrestrial cable gets cut in every 30 minutes and a submarine cable is damaged in every three days somewhere in the world. And the IT downtime costs more than $25 billion a year to the customers.

Ability to rush the maintenance crew ensures the terrestrial cables’ lower downtime than its underwater counterpart. This video clip of Alcatel-Lucent explains why it takes weeks, even months, to repair a submarine optical fiber cable.

India, due to its geographic location, has been the preferred transit of all submarine cables connecting Asia with Africa and Europe. The country needs to maintain its international connectivity besides serving the region. India’s telecom ministry wanted to reduce the maintenance time of its subsea cables from five weeks to three days. Ports across India’s vast coastline are, therefore, ideal to keep the submarine cable repair vessels standby. But India’s draconian Customs has emerged as the biggest roadblock.

In February 2012, the Superintendent of Customs, Customs House, Cochin, directed that the spares, components and consumables on board the vessel, are liable for confiscation and thereby restrained the vessel. Later in July, the Office of the Commissioner of Customs (Preventive) Rummage & Intelligence Division, Willingdon Island, Cochin, issued a show cause notice as to why the vessel should not be confiscated. This forced the repair ship to move out of Indian waters. This means that if there’s any repair needed, it would take the vessel at least 7 days.

Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) has smartly thrown a lifeline to the salvagers of submarine cables. The state-owned telco is forming a venture with Indian Ocean Cableship (Pvt) Ltd, a Singapore based firm, to set up an undersea cable maintenance base at Hambantota, a deep sea port in the island’s south. Indian Ocean Cableship will permanently berth a cable ship at Hambantota and SLT will build a warehouse to facilitate the work.

This opportunity was realized as a result of a free port policy declaration and tax concessions offered by the GOSL for MMRP operations at Hambantota.

In 1988 satellite carriers had 83.8% market share and optical fiber carriers served 16.2% of the market. By 2003, market share of satellites shrunk to 3.6% while the optical fiber grew to 96.4%. Today more than 99% international voice and data are being carried by submarine and terrestrial cable fiber-optic networks.

The cumulative global installation of submarine optical fiber cable is expected to reach two million kilometers by 2018, up from just over a million kilometers in 2009, according to a recent report. It means a lot more submarine cable maintenance ships are to remain standby at various seaports across the world.

Sri Lanka Telecom has positioned itself to meet the increasing demand of maintaining the submarine cable systems in the region. Now the Indian telecom ministry can effectively reduce the submarine cables’ maintenance period to three days. The whole plan of SLT has been elaborated in its website.


  1. This article raises the issue of delays caused by customs procedures etc. causing delays to repair ship sailing schedules. While of course cable ships must be subject to proper scrutiny by customs officers it seems to me that the legislators in some countries do not understand the serious effects the laws they have enacted, to protect trade presumably, have on their international communications.

    Most cable faults are in shallow water and a good proportion of these are in territorial waters. In addition to delays obtaining customs clearance further delays also occur in obtaining permits to work in these waters. While we must be mindful of the rights of other users of the seabed the need to repair cables quickly needs to be a very high priority in the permit process.

    The various industry-wide organisations, (ICPC, Suboptic etc.) and local administrations need to continuously impress on politicians the importance of the work cable repair ships do and to encourage them to consider the effect of laws they enact on vital communications infrastructure. It seems Sri Lanka understand this as well as the commercial potential of encouraging cable ships to be based in their ports.

    Dave Howard
    Director, Howard Communications Ltd.

  2. (Copy and pasted per-request from this LinkedIn group: 01 The Submarine Cable Systems group)

    The 3 day repair target is commendable.

    It would be very challenging for repairing a complete cable cut as the clock would start with the cut. Ship transit time, cable recovery, splicing, moulding and testing would typically be 3 days to 1 week if all goes well. The only good thing about a complete cut is that optical methods can be used to precisely localize the fault and put the ship directly on top of it.

    For non-traffic-affecting electrical shunt faults, it should be reasonable to conduct a 3 day repair provided the cable station staff and company engineers can put the ship exactly on the fault. To do this, the clock would have to start when the ship first cuts into the cable and no weather delays occur.

    In my experience, only ~ 10% of the faults were complete cuts so, if that is the case for the seas around India, they should be able to meet the 3 day target often. The ship would have to remain on station until a clear 3 day weather window is forecast before cutting in.

    Regardless, a diverse mesh architecture with protection switching and sufficient capacity is the best way to maximize traffic uptime. It would reduce restoration time by effectively automating it, and make the the typical fault repair time (in the order of a week or more) a non-issue.