U.S. underseas cable industry needs UNCLOS protection
Currently the vital U.S. underseas cable industry has to rely on the outdated 1884 telegraph treaty for its legal basis when defending its rights to lay, maintain, and repair underseas cables. U.S. ratification of UNCLOS would better protect U.S. companies’ existing cable systems and foster additional investments by giving telecommunications the legal certainty to their claims that they need.
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Given the likely economic and military impacts of cable breaks, the ability to threaten or protect submarine cables and their shore landings will be increasingly important in future conflicts. In a crisis, an aggressor could use multiple coordinated attacks on cables to compel an opponent to back down or employ them as part of an opening offensive to cut off the defender’s military forces from national commanders, intelligence data, and sensor information. Cable attacks could also be highly destabilizing, since they could prevent a nuclear-armed opponent from controlling and monitoring its strategic weapons and early-warning systems. In response, the country targeted could choose to place its nuclear weapons in a higher alert condition – or initiate a preemptive attack.
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Accession to the Law of the Sea Convention would better protect U.S. companies’ existing cable systems and foster additional investments. Companies would benefit from the legal certainty provided by treaty-based rights to lay, maintain, and repair cables, and conduct surveys incident to laying cables. Like shipping companies, telecom interests emphasize that they cannot merely rely on customary international law because of the threat of encroachments by coastal states. Russia’s attempt to delineate cable routes on its continental margin in the Arctic proves that fears of encroachment are not theoretical. As a non-party, the U.S. loses more than just credibility to lodge diplomatic protests to such actions because, with respect to its submarine cable provisions, the Convention permits parties to invoke its meaningful dispute resolution procedures. U.S. telecom companies have repeatedly emphasized that they are comfortable with, and want to rely on, the compulsory dispute resolution provisions in the Convention.
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About two years ago, French fishing vessels unreasonably obstructed a British repair vessel in carrying out cable maintenance off the coast of France by blocking its path. UNCLOS provides remedies which would protect the cable owner's rights in these situations. Judge Wolfrum, the President of the International Law of the Sea Tribunal, is in the audience and could certainly expand on this point. For those who may feel that was only a British and French problem, you would be wrong. The cable involved carried US traffic.
Since 1998 China6 is requiring permits for cables not landing in the country, but which transit its EEZ. The Russian Federation since 1995 is claiming the right to delineate cable routes on its continental shelf in the Arctic as far north as the North Pole. Both of actions are violations of Article 79 of UNCLOS which does not allow a coastal nation to delineate or permit the routes of transiting international cables on the continental shelf.
Last February, in response to a proposal by the province of Nova Scotia to possibly mandate cable routes and require payments to bottom fishermen for use of the seabed in international waters, North American cable owners based their strong jurisdictional arguments against the plan on the straight forward provisions of UNCLOS, which since Canada is a party to UNCLOS, are binding.
UNCLOS is a powerful tool to overcome these encroachments on the freedom to lay cables, but US companies suffer, because the United States has not become a party. If the United States is a party to UNCLOS, then US telecom companies, the Navy, and scientists can enlist the U.S. government to enforce the rights of cable owners to lay, repair and maintain cables in international waters. Without the status of a party to UNCLOS, the United States has no access to the important remedies under UNCLOS to enforce treaty obligations on behalf of US companies or government agencies.
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Tapping today’s fiber-optic cables is theoretically possible, but it is easier to cut or damage them and significantly impact the cables’ users. And while the exact location of cables is not publicly available, improvements to “bottom survey” equipment and unmanned undersea vehicles are making finding cables easier and faster. In time-sensitive military or diplomatic operations, the loss of communications for a few minutes or hours can be catastrophic. With financial transactions, the loss of even fractions of a second can cost millions of dollars as high-speed trades miss their targets and other transactions fail to go through or are lost entirely. The dozens of cable outages that occur each year do not cause a complete loss of service, but they do slow data-transfer speeds as information is re-routed through fewer intact cables. Most of these cable breaks happen in relatively shallow water, when rough weather moves cables around until they break or fishing trawlers catch a cable in a net. Some outages, however, have more nefarious origins. In 2013, three divers with hand tools cut the main cable connecting Egypt with Europe, reducing Egypt’s Internet bandwidth by 60%.
Repairing a submarine cable at sea is difficult and time consuming. First the break has to be located using built-in monitoring systems that can indicate the cable segment in which the break is likely to have occurred. Cable repair ships then must go to that location and pull up the cable until they get to the damaged spot. A new section of cable can then be spliced in, which can take several days to complete.
Our economy is hurt when delimitation of our extended continental shelf is delayed and when legal uncertainties from non-membership prevent our oil and gas industry from exploiting the rich continental margin, especially in the Arctic. Development of resources in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska's coast would create approximately 54,700 jobs per year nationwide with a $145 billion payroll and would generate $193 billion in federal, state and local revenue according to a study done by the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research.
The delay in ratifying this treaty has already cost the loss of one of our four seabed mine sites, the richest in the world, and if we do not soon adhere the United States risks losing the remaining three, with billions in the strategic minerals manganese, copper, cobalt and nickel at stake. A single seabed mining operation would spur the economy with total capital purchases of close to one and a half billion dollars and would stimulate robust job creation. Further, for our nation to lose this new industry would cost millions in consumer losses and foregone tax revenues and billions in our balance of trade as the United States was forced to import rather than produce these strategic minerals.
Undersea cables carry more than 95% of international Internet and telephonic transmissions. These crucial cables also transmit financial data and transactions worth trillions every day. The Convention establishes the legal underpinning for protecting and managing these cables. At a National Press Club event a spokesman for AT&T warned that not being a party places America's crucial communication links at risk.
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In economic terms, Pike stressed that advances in technology have dramatically impacted the impor- tance of acceding to the Convention, particularly in terms of the nation’s economic security. Furthermore, he believes the treaty under consideration today is perceived far differently than it was when amended in 1994, just as the Internet was being introduced to the world.
“Now, we’ve got 95 percent of all of our Internet traffic, whether it’s orders for widgets, whether it’s science or military, all of this information travels on undersea cables, and we basically have no protection over those,” he said, illustrating why telecommunications giants like AT&T and Verizon, as well as the North American Submarine Cable Association, are among vocal advocates on Capitol Hill pushing for ratification. “These organizations strongly support the treaty because it affords us unfettered ability to lay and maintain these undersea cables, but undersea cables were sort of an afterthought in 1982.