Engineers and scuba divers are working to find and fix an electrical fault on a key underwater communications cable that has caused Internet connection problems across the Cayman Islands.
A fault on the MAYA-1 submarine cable system, which provides Internet and international telephone capacity to the Cayman Islands, was blamed for significant interruptions in service early this week.
All of the islands’ telecommunications providers had switched to a second cable, routed through Jamaica, by Tuesday morning, meaning service was restored to most customers.
LIME was still warning its customers to expect some degradation in service, while the problem on the MAYA-1 line is being identified and fixed. It said 34 per cent of its international circuits were down on Monday.
Logic, WestStar and Digicel were all fully up and running by Monday, according to executives at the three companies.
The impairment causing the system problem, described as a shunt fault, could be anywhere between the cable station at Half Moon Bay in East End and a “repeater unit” around 30 miles out to sea, according to LIME.
A locally hired divemaster was inspecting the shore end of the cable Tuesday, while a cable repair ship was on standby in case the fault proves to be further out to sea.
Cable and Wireless, the parent company of LIME, is part of a consortium of communications companies that owns the cable. Other Cayman communications companies effectively rent capacity from the consortium.
The fault has raised questions over the Cayman Islands’ telecommunications infrastructure. In a doomsday scenario, where both the MAYA-1 and the Cayman-Jamaica Fibre System experienced faults at the same time, the island would be cut off from the outside world.
Bob Taylor, CEO of WestStar, said that scenario, while unlikely, would be potentially devastating for business.
“If something happened to this other cable right now, there would be no phone calls, no cell coverage, no Internet, no nothing. The only communication coming out of the Cayman Islands would be via satellite phone.
“We need to start thinking about whether we need more diversity in this area. Bermuda has six or seven cables. It would be a big project to put in another cable, but it is something that can be planned for and saved for, if a policy is there that says this is what our country requires.”
WestStar’s Internet customers experienced some interruption in service from Sunday morning to Monday evening, but all were back online by Monday. Television customers were not affected.
Mr. Taylor said switching capacity from the damaged MAYA-1 cable to the Cayman-Jamaica system had resolved the issue. The downside of that strategy is there is now no back-up if there is a failure on the second cable.
Dave Archbold, of the Information and Communications Technology Authority, said a third cable would be ideal. But he cautioned it would be prohibitively expensive.
“We would be delighted if a company or consortium of companies came in and decided to put in another cable. Not only would it help from a resilience perspective, it would also help from a competition perspective.
“For that to happen, there would have to be a good business case. It is an expensive job and there would have to be enough demand for that capacity for it to make financial sense. You couldn’t just lay a cable as a backup.
“Over the years, I believe a number of companies have looked at the possibility of putting in a third cable and decided it didn’t make financial sense. If that changed, we would certainly welcome it, but it doesn’t seem likely in the immediate future.”
The Chamber of Commerce is working with government through its Future of Cayman Initiative to look in detail at the islands’ long-term infrastructure needs and consider what projects will need support, including the potential for a third cable.
“The reality is it would take a significant investment,” said Wil Pineau, chief executive of the chamber.
But he said business leaders and government needed to look at telecommunications as a priority alongside more traditional infrastructure issues, like Caribbean Utilities Company, the airport and the dock, to ensure Cayman had the right support systems.
“We need a long-term plan for the islands’ infrastructure needs to ensure we support business. The communications infrastructure is part of that. It is vitally important for an island that relies on great telecommunications and data delivery that we have the right systems in place for our businesses,” Mr. Pineau said.
LIME was unable to offer any additional information on the cause of the fault yesterday or the likely timescale for repairing the cable.
The company’s initial press release indicated that a failure on the MAYA-1 cable system occurred around 6am Sunday. The underwater cable system provides Internet and international calling capacity for LIME in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The communications company’s initial findings were that the system sustained a “shunt fault” on one of its segments near the Half Moon Bay cable station in Cayman. Jamaica and Turks were not affected.
“At this stage, there is no definitive information on the exact location of the impairment that is causing the shunt fault,” read a statement issued by LIME Monday. LIME was hoping divers could identify possible impairments that led to the outage, close to shore in Grand Cayman.
In the meantime, the company was looking into the possibility of working with the MAYA consortium to “power-feed the cable from Miami” – a complex procedure that would involve a full system outage that would affect other countries in the region as well.
LIME General Manager Tony Ritch said: “This is obviously a major outage for the country, and we apologise for this protracted downtime and impact to consumers and businesses. Regrettably, given the complexity of this system, it is taking quite some time to identify the fault.”