POSTSCRIPT / October 2, 2022 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Marine cable break an ever-present risk

The suspected sabotage of undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe in the midst of the war in Ukraine has set us wondering about the vulnerability in a period of conflict of the submarine communication cables connecting the Philippines to other countries.

The gas leaks in the Baltic Sea were “the result of deliberate, reckless and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” the Swedish Coast Guard said. Photo: Getty Images

Western allies said this week they saw sabotage behind explosions that apparently damaged the undersea gas pipelines delivering gas from Russia to Europe.

This Filipino wonders: Cannot the submarine communication cables connecting the Philippines to other countries be similarly damaged in a warlike situation?

Preceded by explosions, the gas leaks in the Baltic Sea were “the result of deliberate, reckless and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” the Swedish Coast Guard said without pointing an accusing finger at any party.

Operated by a consortium majority-owned by Russian gas giant Gazprom, Nord Stream 1 and 2 run from Russia to Germany. Although both lines still have gas, they were reportedly not being operated when the explosions occurred.

For its part, Russia’s security service launched an “international terrorism” investigation, saying the damage had caused significant economic loss to Russia.

As for our concern over global communication, would it not be safer to transmit messages via satellites that are beyond the easy reach of saboteurs instead of through cables lying on the ocean floor as unmoving targets?

There are other problems with underwater cables. Breaks are quite common that can be caused by physical damage from ships (such as when they drop anchor), fishing vessels (when lines get tangled), and even from sharks biting the lines.

There are also natural hazards, such as earthquakes, foul weather, and tsunami as what happened in Japan years ago when half the submarine cables there were destroyed.

Communication flowing through underwater cables can stop or slow down with signal interference. (Repairs are done by specialists who also install the cables.)

Terrestrial or land cables face similar problems. They are easily damaged by strong typhoons, earthquakes, landslides, and such devastating phenomena. And they cannot easily cut through rugged or inaccessible areas.

Satellite systems are, in general, impervious to earthquakes – unless there is damage to the structure where satellite equipment rests. But, generally, satellite signals and transmission are not affected by natural hazards on land.

An exception is what is referred to in the industry as “rain fade”. Depending on the type of bandwidth, and to a lesser extent on equipment, a bad rainfall (or snow) can disrupt or delay satellite reception/transmission.

As for costs, it is very expensive to lay cable – whether on land or underwater. It is near impossible or prohibitively expensive to install cable or even cell towers in far-flung areas (called GIDA or geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas).

This is why PLDT, Smart, and Globe do not seem to be enthusiastic about going to GIDAs or any remote area mostly inhabited by poor folk and where there is no money to be made and no return on investment.

Satellite appears to be the best way to go – especially for the GIDAs. It is the only way to provide an essential need – that is, connectivity – for education and distance learning, disaster relief, and health crisis management during the COVID-9 pandemic.

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The International Telecommunication Union based in Geneva is the United Nation’s oldest agency. It has member-states and each member controls the licenses to its constituents. The ITU also regulates frequencies and orbital slots for the satellites.

The Philippines was assigned two slots decades ago, but these were not used, so these may have been reassigned to other members. In the Asia-Pacific region, besides the Philippines, only Cambodia and Brunei have no satellite of their own.

There are GEO (geostationary) satellites used for telecommunications. They are lodged some 35,000 km above the earth, while the LEO (low-earth orbiting) like the “Starlinks” of Elon Musk’s SpaceX are only 500 to 1500 km above.

Excited officials of the Department of Information and Communications Technology announced in July that the government will “fully pay” to roll out Starlink locally – when even the US government had canceled its $888-million subsidies for its internet service to rural areas due to claims issues.

A Starlink subscriber must have a $599 satellite dish as a terminal, and pay $110 in monthly fees to use its broadband service. A constellation of satellites operated by SpaceX in lower orbit seeks to provide satellite-based internet to previously unserviceable areas.

In operating a satellite system, the biggest expense is reportedly the cost of bandwidth, or the transponder or line that telcos must lease from satellite operators. Thus, it makes sense for the government to sponsor the launch and operation of its own satellite – for economic reasons, for security, and for “prestige” – assuming that is an important consideration.

Industry sources said the cost is very high – about $300 million for the manufacture and launch, and insurance to protect against failure of launch. The average life of a GEO satellite is 15 years.

In the geosphere – the 35,000 km altitude, where the satellites we use are lodged – there are about 400 satellites in orbit. There is also a satellite cemetery up there for those whose lives have ended. These dead satellites can stay afloat for hundreds of years and do not return to the earth’s atmosphere.

However, among the LEOs – low-earth orbit satellites – where Starlink has launched a couple of thousands (life is about 5-7 years) there are thousands of them. A lot of space junk and debris burn up before they reach the earth.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 2, 2022)

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