Sliced your submarine cable? Fill in this paperwork

FCC approves rules that make itself more important

Cut cable

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved new rules that will require companies to report outages in submarine cables.

Although submarine cables account for 95 per cent of the US' international internet traffic, as well as voice and data, the rules over reporting outages are weak and in most cases are simply ignored.

Previous reporting requirements only applied to cables laid after 2008 and were voluntary on the rest. The result? Just two of the 62 cables are covered, and of the remainder only 14 have ever submitted reports – and most of them were only initial test reports.

The FCC argues, with some justification, that it needs to expand the reporting on these critical cables to be more in line with major wired, wireless, and satellite networks in the rest of the country. Hence the new requirements were passed – as ever – along partisan lines, 3-2.

The new outage reporting rules will enable the regulator to monitor operational status of the cables and, according to the FCC, "ensure the reliability of this communications infrastructure."

Any time there is an outage of more than 50 per cent of the traffic through a cable for more than 30 minutes, the company responsible will be required to send a report through the FCC's Network Outage Reporting System (NORS).


As usual, the two Republican commissioners voted against the proposal and issued statements explaining why. Somewhat less usually, their arguments were valid.

Both Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly have questioned the FCC's cost analysis of the new measures. The FCC has estimated the total cost to all licensees of the proposal will be $550,000 a year, or roughly $9,000 per licensee.

The assumptions behind that figure are shaky at best, prompting Pai to argue: "The bottom line is this: The FCC simply does not care about cost-benefit analysis, let alone getting it right. That is how you end up with a section blithely asserting that compliance costs for the entire undersea cable industry and its 161 licensees will be no more than the price of a tiny studio apartment in Arlington, Virginia."

Of course, had the FCC worked on a more realistic figure, both Pai and O'Rielly would have used that as justification for voting against the measure. And, of course, incremental cost is not as serious a consideration as understanding the health of the country's main telecoms connections to the outside world.

But Pai also makes another strong point: commenters to the FCC's proposal highlighted the fact that improving the efficiency and reliability of submarine cables was not best achieved by making people fill out paperwork, but by fixing the most common issue associated with cable failure in the first place: lack of communication.

Pai notes that respondents "identified the need for coordination among the many agencies that play a role in this space – including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Coast Guard, the Department of Defense, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."


According to those with knowledge of the real-world issue, the US government is itself responsible for many of the problems because one agency will carry out some work, such as dredging, without communicating with other agencies, and so end up unaware of the fact that a cable lies in their path.

It was proposed that the FCC act as a clearinghouse for issues such as this and introduce rules that would improve communication among agencies.

Of course, the FCC is much more interested in boosting its own influence over fixing issues, and so it decided that forcing others to submit paperwork was more important than working with others to find a solution.

The FCC said in its announcement today that its International Bureau, "in coordination with its Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau," would "develop processes" to cover the installation and maintenance of submarine cables.

That is a far cry from actually doing something, and Pai has rightly called it out. His vote against the proposal however – particularly when he was initially in favor of it – is just one more example of the regulator's dysfunction. ®

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