FCC tightens submarine cable regulation. Why not data centers too?

Posted on September 19, 2015  /  2 Comments

It has been estimated that submarine cables carry traffic associated with over US$10 trillion in transactional value globally per day. It is being also claimed that submarine cables transport 99% of the international data worldwide. These are largely true, yet exaggerated marketing pitch. Terrestrial cables also carry huge volume of international data traffic across the borders, especially within Europe and across the Eurasian routes.

It, however, makes no difference with the consumers as long as they remain online. What the consumers don’t know is: submarine cables get cut once in every three days while the terrestrial cables get snapped in every 30 minutes somewhere in the world. And such outages annually cost the IT industry nearly US$27 billion. It has prompted the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to propose new rules for “Improving Outage Reporting for Submarine Cables and Enhancing Submarine Cable Outage Data.” The FCC justifies its fortification of the existing regulation:

Given the role of submarine cables to the nation’s economic and national security, there is value to ensuring that infrastructure is reliable, resilient and diverse. Today, however, the ad hoc approach to outage reporting for undersea cables has resulted in a gap in the sufficiency of the information that the Federal Communications Commission (“Commission” or “FCC”) staff receives from service providers. To effectuate our statutory obligations of promoting the public interest and our nation’s economic and national security, we need the ability to (1) be advised of undersea cable outages when they occur; (2) receive the information necessary to understand the nature of the damage and potential impacts on critical U.S. economic sectors, national security, and other vital interests; and (3) enhance coordination and help facilitate restoration of service in outage events.

Technology has blurred conventional differences between undersea cables and terrestrial networks. That’s why the FCC has comprehensively addressed both the segments in its proposition. The regulator should, however, look beyond the transport layer of today’s telecoms networks. Data centers have been blended into the supply chain of domestic and international telecommunications systems. Data center outages have recently impacted the stock exchanges at Singapore and New York. It has prompted the demand for being regulated from the industry itself.

Other industries such as aviation have the same problem, but achieve much higher levels of reliability because of regulations requiring accident investigation, said Ansett, ”We are a younger industry, and we are unregulated. There is no authority that looks at data centers. The closest we come are safety regulations, or mandates laid down by financial services authorities such as The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).” One reason for this is that data center failures do not cause loss of life, unlike plane crashes.

A number of failures could be avoided if, for instance, data center operators refused to use residual current detectors (RCDs) in racked servers, said Ansett. These are designed to protect people from electrocution by devices such as lawnmowers, so they are inappropriate in a data center, and they can also trip unpredictably at a level lower than their 30mA recommended setting, causing a server failure that can cascade into something worse.

Therefore, the FCC may initiate dialogue with its counterparts in Asia and Europe to structure a universal regulatory standard for the data centers as well.


  1. Here is the paragraph from Newsweek that details what and how much submarine cables transport:

    “Most people probably don’t know that 99 percent of all transoceanic data traffic goes through undersea cables, and that includes Internet usage, phone calls and text messages.”

    Please note it says “transoceanic data traffic” not total global traffic.

    1. Thanks Markus, for pointing out the prudence of Newsweek report. The industry is, by and large, quite judgmental on this issue: http://www.techradar.com/news/internet/the-incredible-story-of-the-underwater-internet-1291295/1