Submarine cables: problems of legal regulation under International Law

Daria Shvets

Last decades are characterized by continuous growth and development of new technologies and their subsequent incorporation into life. A great significance in the modern world is assigned to technologies related to data transmission as one of the most valuable resources nowadays. Most people mistakenly believe that almost all flows of information daily plying around the world are transmitted by satellites. In fact, about 95% of all international communications are currently carried through submarine fibre optic cables. All continents are connected by modern submarine cables nowadays with the sole exception of Antarctica – the only continent where satellite connection is continued to be used. In the event of damage or break of any submarine cable, millions of people are affected. Breaks and faults that regularly happen worldwide disrupt communications – banking, ticket bookings, electronic communications and many other services carried via cables are suspended or delayed.

To date, submarine cables are used for many purposes – they provide power to oil platforms at sea, offshore wind farms and tidal energy generators etc. Despite the tremendous importance of submarine cables for global communications there are still many unsolved problems in their legal regime. As far as submarine cables’ nature is transnational and normally cables are laid in several states’ maritime zones, there are always controversies and legal issues arising in cable operations processes.

Number of difficulties and problems are faced by cable companies when laying, repairing and removing submarine cables due to different interpretation of International Law used by governments, fragmentation of legal norms and lack of provisions related to submarine cables. As a rule submarine cables are laid in territorial sea of the state and its continental shelf. As far as these maritime areas are under state’s control sovereign states have rights to establish legal rules relating to submarine cables regulation. Not always these kinds of rules are in conformity with International Law; sometimes due to lack of regulation in International Law sovereign states establish excessive regulation or, on the opposite, don’t have norms regulating this or that question which leads to the gap and cause problems in practice. In these circumstances cable companies want all the procedures and legal formalities related to submarine cables to be simplified and become more clear while states tend to keep all activities within their maritime zones under control. As far as there are two parties with opposite interests, the research question I would like to answer in my PhD thesis is how to balance interests of sovereign states and private cable companies in process of exercising activities relating to submarine cables. In other words I would like to see how International Law could be interpreted or even changed and what means can be offered in order to adapt it to temporary means.