The Importance of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention to the Cable Industry
What you may not realize is that 70% of all of the country's international telecom traffic, which includes data transfer and video, is carried on these cables. If you eliminate Canada, 90% of the country's international traffic is carried on these cables. The disproportionate importance of these cables to the nation's communication infrastructure can be seen by the fact that if all of the cables were suddenly cut, using every single communications satellite in the sky, only 7% of the United States traffic could be restored. This underscores the incredible capacity of modern fiber optic submarine cables. By any standard, they constitute critical infrastructure to the United States, and indeed the world.
This critical infrastructure, by its very nature, depends upon international cooperation and law. The promise of continued advances in international communications hinges on an international standard providing a compass whereby nations and private companies may steer a course which efficiently allows international communications networks to be seamlessly planned, built, and operated.
UNCLOS provides this modern legal compass. Simply stated, without UNCLOS, US telecom companies are hurt in the planning, development, maintenance, and protection of the world's undersea cable networks. UNCLOS is the key to the world's international telecommunication system; it unlocks the door for the fullest participation and leadership possible by US telecom companies.
Critics of UNCLOS raise the argument that since many of the rights spelled out in UNCLOS can be considered customary international law to which the US adheres, there is not need to formally ratify the convention.
From first hand experience, I can say this academic argument fails in the real world. Customary international law requires a court decision to determine state practice, before it can be said to be binding law. Last year I involved in a non-cable major marine pollution case pending in a US court where the issue was the rights of a European coastal nation to refuse entry to a leaking supertanker after the crew had been rescued. I think the issue is well addressed in UNCLOS, but both sides presented expert witnesses and detailed memorandums arguing for different interpretations of what the applicable state practice and customary international law is. Ultimately, we won't know the answer until the Judge decides the issue. The point is that telecom companies can not make business investments on such an illusive basis as customary international law. They need reliable and discernable international law which UNCLOS expressly provides.
UNCLOS is needed as well close to home. UNCLOS provides clear boundaries between seabed users and coastal nations with universal norms. These same norms are needed with respect to federal and state government policy.
In the last eight years, the traditional rights of cable owners outside of territorial waters have been the victim of steady encroachment by certain state agencies and certain federal agencies which seek to expand their regulatory reach over international cables- in California or Oregon out to 200 nautical miles, in New Jersey out to 110 nautical miles off their coasts. Compare these with state jurisdictions over international cables of 3 nautical miles claimed by Florida or New York, and the quandary of cable owners can start to be appreciated. These jurisdictional differences translate into added delays of 1-2 years and millions of additional dollars for installing new cable systems. This jurisdictional confusion would be harmonized by UNCLOS.
The current uncertainty and conflicts over the limits of the United States continental shelf and margin and the rights and obligations of international cables laid on it will be largely resolved by UNCLOS.
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.