The communications watchdog has called for a feasibility study into more active policing of submarine cable protection zones after cable operators complained that current arrangements were "unsatisfactory".
A report tabled in parliament yesterday by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy recommended he "consult with the Attorney-General" about the potential for "funding for a study to determine whether active compliance monitoring in protection zones is necessary and if needed, how this monitoring could be provided."
It came after admissions by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) - the authority responsible for policing submarine protection zones in Sydney and Perth - that it was "not physically equipped with the resources to monitor the protection of cables in Australian waters" and that it relied on fishing and maritime agencies with surveillance capacity "to perform a monitoring function" for the protection zones.
"The ACMA [Australian Communications and Media Authority] notes from the AFP in its submission that the protection zones are not being actively monitored to ensure compliance and that there is considerable support from submarine cable operators and owners for active cable monitoring within protection zones," the watchdog said in its report to parliament.
"Active monitoring in protection zones would provide additional protection, which cable owners and cable operators support. [But] further study is required to determine whether compliance monitoring in protection zones is justified.
"For this purpose the costs and benefits of monitoring options would have to be evaluated."
Among the cable operators to call for tougher policing of cable zones were Kordia, Southern Cross, Telstra and Optus.
Others - including AJC Australia and Pipe Networks - supported electronic monitoring of cables in protection zones.
Policing of the submarine zones - which extended 30 nautical miles offshore - was required to prevent damage to the cables.
Prior to 2001, there had been several reported cases of cables being damaged by fishing trawlers and sand dredging operations.
Kordia stated in a written submission that it "would expect proactive monitoring of the cable protection zones that would discourage and pre-empt any excluded activity as opposed to only responding to reported incidents".
Conroy said the Government recognised "the importance of submarine cable infrastructure and would consider the recommendations carefully and consult with stakeholders on the next steps."
The ACMA report - which looked at the past five years' operation of the submarine cable protection regime in the Telecommunications Act - was otherwise good news for the regulator and the Government, with operators and other stakeholders providing submissions that added up to a clean bill of health for the regime.