One of France Telecom's cable laying ships had to be abandoned last week after catching fire. The incident should serve as a reminder to us all just how fragile modern communications can really be, and of the physical aspect of 'wireless' communication.
The Charmarel is one of FT's six cable laying vessels, and some 58 crew were forced to quit it when the fire broke out last Wednesday. The ship was in the Atlantic near the coast of Namibia, which likely led to the happy outcome of all crew being rescued by a local fishing vessel - crucially completely unharmed. Charmarel was returning from repairing the Sat3-Safe cable, and Thierry Bonhomme, senior executive vice president of networks and carriers, and R&D, says all subsea cables in the area are unaffected by the incident.
Bonhomme says a full investigation is now underway, and that other scheduled maintenance will continue as planned. I guess they just need to shuffle the other five ships in the fleet to do that.
The main point, though, is how a simple ship failure could have major consequences for our communication systems. There's few details what repairs were being made to the cable, but we should be grateful the ship was on the return leg rather than en-route to carry out the work. The cable is a major link between Europe, Africa and Asia Pacific (it starts in Portugal and finishes in Malaysia), and is considered an important link for Africa, where the bulk of landing points are located and because it is largely funded by African countries (meaning they get a much-needed share of the profits).
Of course it's more important that no-one lost their life during the fire, but let's not forget the huge physical effort that goes into powering our modern lives.