Australia’s submarine communications cables carry the bulk of our international voice and data traffic and are a vital component of our national infrastructure, linking Australia with other countries.
Submarine cables are vulnerable to damage and breakage, which can cause serious consequences for the flow of information to and from Australia. Cable damage can cause data loss, significant delays, and severe financial loss to businesses, cable owners and individuals who rely on communication links with other countries.
Submarine cable legislation
Because of the increasing importance of submarine cables, the Australian Government introduced legislation designed to protect our most critical submarine cables—the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Protection of Submarine Cables and Other Measures) Act 2005. When reading the legislation, it is advisable to consult the associated Explanatory Memorandum (PDF 628 kb).
The legislation allows the Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA) to declare submarine cable protection zones in Australian waters over submarine cables of national significance. Within these protection zones, activities that could damage submarine cables will be prohibited or restricted. Within protection zones, it is an offence to damage a submarine cable, to engage in prohibited activities, or to contravene a restriction. Penalties include fines of up to $66,000 and/or ten years imprisonment for an individual, or up to $330,000 for a corporation.
If the ACMA declares a protection zone, the location of that zone will be noted on relevant hydrographic charts and details of the prohibited or restricted activities will be circulated widely to affected parties.
The legislation also provides for the ACMA to issue permits for the installation of submarine cables either:
- within submarine cable protection zones, or
- outside of submarine cable protection zones (other than in coastal waters)
Application charges for installation permits
Application for a protection zone permit
The application fee for a PZ permit is $2,660 (GST exempt). The fee is based on cost recovery for the ACMA’s administration of the application.
Application for a non-protection zone permit and expert consultancy charge
The application charge for a non-PZ permit is $8,176 (GST exempt), or $7,388 (GST exempt) where the application is linked to a protection zone permit. Applications for a non-PZ permit must also include an expert consultancy charge of $25,000 (GST exempt).
The application fees are based on cost recovery for the ACMA’s administration of the application. Where a non-PZ permit is linked to a PZ permit application, a reduced application fee applies reflecting the slightly lower administrative expenses involved when processing linked applications.
The expert consultancy charge is to cover the cost of any required expert consultant assessment. Any unspent portion of the charge may be refundable, and the charge will only be used if a situation arises where the ACMA considers independent expert advice is needed. A further charge may be levied if the costs of an expert consultant exceed the expert consultancy charge.
The application fees and expert consultancy charge are payable by either by a cheque to the Collector of Public Moneys, Australian Communications and Media Authority or direct deposit to the ACMA.
For direct deposit, prior to lodging an application contact the ACMA’s Finance Section via email at email@example.com or telephone 02 6219 5521 to arrange for a Tax Invoice to be sent to you. Payments can then be made by EFT, BPay or Credit Card (depending on payment amount) by following the instructions on the Tax Invoice.
Declaring, varying or revoking a protection zone
The ACMA has developed an information guide Requesting a protection zone be declared, varied or revoked (PDF 440 kb or Word 459 kb). This guide provides an overview of the ACMA’s approach to declaring, varying or revoking a protection zone under Schedule 3A of the Act. It should assist in preparing a submission requesting the ACMA to declare, vary or revoke a protection zone. The ACMA may be contacted for further information about the process.
Costs of declaring, varying or revoking a protection zone
An applicant for a new protection zone must pay a $195,000 deposit to the ACMA for the expenses to be incurred by the ACMA in relation to an application to declare a protection zone. Likewise, a person who makes an application to vary or revoke an existing protection zone must pay a $143,000 deposit to the ACMA for the expenses to be incurred by the ACMA.
The ACMA charges $197 per hour for the activities of ACMA staff in relation to an application. The ACMA directly recovers external costs, including but not limited to, advertising, venue hire, catering, travel expenses and consultation costs. These costs are taken from a paid deposit, with any remainder refunded or outstanding charge billed to an applicant.
Payment can be made either by a cheque payable to the Collector of Public Moneys, Australian Communications and Media Authority or a direct deposit to the ACMA. For direct deposit, contact the ACMA’s Finance Section via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 02 6219 5521 prior to lodging the application submission to arrange for a Tax Invoice to be sent to you. Payments can then be made by Electronic Funds Transfer or BPay by following the instructions on the Tax Invoice.
Protection zones around submarine cables of national significance
Perth protection zone
In September 2007, the ACMA made a declaration for a submarine cable protection zone off the coast of Perth, which has been in effect since 1 February 2008. This protection zone is around a cable that is regarded as nationally significant—the SEA-ME-WE3 cable, which links Australia to South East Asia, the Middle East and Western Europe. The Perth Protection Zone extends from City Beach to 51 nautical miles offshore and covers the area up to one nautical mile either side of the SEA-ME-WE3 cable.
For further details about the Perth Protection Zone, including information about activities that are prohibited or restricted in the zone, go to the WA protection zone page.
Sydney protection zones
In July 2007, the ACMA declared two submarine cable protection zones off the Sydney coast which have been in effect since 1 October 2007. The protection zones set out in the declarations have been developed around two cables that are regarded as nationally significant:
- the Southern Cross Cable—which links Australia’s communications network with New Zealand, Fiji and the United States, and
- the Australia Japan Cable—which links Australia with Guam, Japan and Asia
The two Sydney protection zones are as follows:
- the Northern Sydney Protection Zone extending from Narrabeen beach to 40 nautical miles off shore covering northern branches of the Australia Japan Cable and Southern Cross cable, including the area between these two cables; and
- the Southern Sydney Protection Zone extending from Tamarama and Clovelly beaches and extending 30 nautical miles off shore covering the southern branches of the Australia Japan Cable and Southern Cross cables, including the area between these two cables.
For further details about the NSW protection zone, including information about activities that are prohibited or restricted in the zones, go to the NSW protection zone page.
Memorandum of understanding
The ACMA and the Department of Defence signed a Memorandum of Understanding [MoU] (PDF, 196 kb) on 22 December 2008, to address concerns about possible damage to submarine cables in areas where submarine cable protection zones overlap with Defence practice areas. The MoU outlines acceptable parameters for Defence to conduct operations using explosives and confirms the obligation on cable operators to consult with Defence prior to accessing the practice areas.
The MoU includes the direction for firing ammunition, the use of inert practice rounds and the use of targets by Defence. The MoU also precludes the bottoming of submarines within protection zones and provides formal recognition by Defence of cable owners and operators right to access defence practice areas which are within, or overlap with, protection zones to undertake cable installation or maintenance.
The MoU confirms the ACMA’s obligation to consult with Defence regarding cable permit applications, before making or varying any protection zone declarations and changing prohibited conduct or restricted activity in protection zones overlapping with defence practice areas.
Any submarine cable owner or operator wishing to enter a Defence practice area should contact Ms Melissa Felton at Defence on telephone +61 (0)2 6266 8640 or by email email@example.com.