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New rules to keep Singapore contractors clear of underground cables

CONTRACTORS carrying out earthworks in Singapore now face standardised rules for projects done near underground telecommunication cables, under a new framework to minimise service disruptions from cable cuts.

They must get relevant service layout plans from telecom players and hire licensed cable detection workers to physically mark where the cables in the area are, before works start. In fact, the network operators have to be officially notified at least a week in advance, if the planned underground works will be within 15 metres of any telecommunication cables.

Joint site meetings and joint inspections of trial holes - which can be dug only by hand, and not with any machinery or sharp, pointed tools - must also be held to verify the location of the cables, with the contractors, cable detection workers and network operators all present.

The new framework, which was announced on Monday, will take effect on June 1, 2019.

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Failure to comply will be taken as a violation of the Telecommunications Act, which requires contractors who carry out activities such as excavation, boring or tunnelling to follow "all reasonable requirements of telecommunication system licensees for the prevention of damage to telecommunication cables".

The rules were jointly developed by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and Singapore's telecommunication network operators, and also involved industry talks with major contractors.

The IMDA said its investigations into previous cable cuts found that most incidents took place because the contractors did not follow procedures laid out by operators and did not exercise due diligence when doing earthworks.

On top of that, the procedures were not standardised across Singapore's more than 20 network operators "and vary in terms of standard and comprehensiveness" - a situation that the regulator said "may lead to confusion among the contractors". Facilities-based operators, as these network licencees are also known, include the three incumbent telcos, Singtel, StarHub and M1; Australian entrant TPG Telecom; and fibre players NetLink NBN Trust and MyRepublic.

"The earthworks requirements will therefore enhance clarity and facilitate compliance for earthworks contractors, who will now only have to comply with a standardised set of requirements," the IMDA said.

An official document spelling out the new standards made clear that the contractor performing the actual earthworks is directly responsible for compliance and "it shall not be an excuse for the earthworks contractor to claim that it had delegated such responsibility to another party or relied on another party to ensure that the requirements are complied with".

IMDA deputy chief executive Aileen Chia, who is also director-general of telecoms and post, noted in a press statement that Singapore's digital economy "is built on resilient connectivity".

"We are encouraged by our industry's positive reception to this initiative, and will continue to work with them and the construction industry to prevent telecommunication cable cuts and reduce inconvenience to our consumers and businesses," Ms Chia added.

Tay Yeow Lian, managing director of networks at Singtel, said in the same statement that the tighter rules "will raise operational standards in the industry, help reduce inadvertent cable cuts and minimise disruptions to customers".

If damage has been done to the cables or the pipes that house them - or if any such damage is suspected of having taken place - contractors are now also mandated to immediately stop all work and call the relevant network operators, whether during or outwith office hours. The contractors are not to ignore or cover up any damage, or attempt to fix it on their own.

Recent outages that made the news include a major fibre broadband disruption in eastern Singapore in November 2018. About 10,000 subscribers lost Internet access and landline phone and pay-television services, after a third-party contractor cut cables during construction works in Tampines.

Member of Parliament Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee) cited that disruption in Parliament in March 2019, noting that the digital economy "is built on the assumption of uninterrupted access to the Internet".

"But no matter how much service providers invest to ensure 99.999 per cent uptime, it can be undone by failure at the infrastructure level," he added, warning of "potentially catastrophic business consequences" from service disruptions.