The Geopolitics of Subsea Connectivity

Digital transformation and the migration of data and applications to the cloud is a global phenomenon. While we may like to think that the cloud knows no borders, the reality is that geopolitics holds just as much sway, if not more in certain situations, online as it does on the air. Content providers building new subsea cable routes with landings designed specifically to support new cloud data centers across the globe have attracted the attention of the media. Not all of that attention has been welcomed. Such was the case in August 2020, when the US Dept. of Justice announced opposition to the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), an 8,000-mile subsea cable route that Facebook and Google had been developing since 2016 between the US, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines.

In April, the DOJ allowed the cable to Taiwan to move forward under a temporary six-month agreement. However, the companies had to hit pause on the Hong Kong link to quell concerns over whether the link could be accessed for spying by the Chinese government. If this was the only time that political issues impacted the development of a subsea cable, it might not be so impactful.

But this is the third subsea cable between China and the US that Facebook has had to rethink because of political pressure.

In 2020, Facebook and Amazon withdrew their application to build the Bay-to-Bay Express system, which was expected to link the US with Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. And in March, Facebook also withdrew from the Hong Kong Americas (HKA) submarine cable project.

It’s important to note that the DOJ has ample reason for concern. In July 2020, the Chinese government instituted a new security law in Hong Kong that grants significant powers to Chinese authorities to help them combat vague national security threats, including criminalizing seeking to “split” Hong Kong from China and “colluding” with “external forces” to spy on China. Facebook, Google, Zoom, LinkedIn and Twitter have temporarily blocked authorities’ access to user data in response to the sweeping law, but may face fines, bans and even jail time for doing so.

While these recent headlines might make it seem like subsea cables have previously been spared political attention, the reality is that geopolitics have long been a contributing factor on the world’s underwater communications infrastructure. Connectivity and access are universal needs in the global digital economy, and capacity on subsea cables is the central nervous system, transiting data from where it originates to where it is needed.

Causes for concern

According to Defense News, submarine data cables handle more than 95 percent of IP voice and data traffic between countries and continents, and 100 percent of international Internet traffic. Today, per Telegeography, there are more than 425 underwater cables in operation, covering more than 807,000 miles.

In fact, Global Cloud xChange owns five subsea cable systems that connect countries from every global region, including:

  • A 9,000-mile trans-Atlantic submarine cable system that links the US, UK and France
  • A 16,000-mile cable system that connects India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and Egypt.
  • A 17,000-mile cable that connects 18 countries and regions in Asia, Africa and Europe.
  • A 6,200-mile cable that links Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong in a ring configuration.
  • A 2,000-mile cable that connects Egypt to France, with a branching unit to Cypress.

And there’s no question that countries around the globe are concerned about subsea cables – not only whether they can be used to access private data, but also how they need to be protected to ensure that global communications aren’t disrupted.

To that end, the Royal Navy is building a surveillance ship, the purpose of which is to protect critical cables that could be sabotaged in submarine warfare. The new Multi Role Ocean Surveillance ship is built with sensors that monitor sea activity, and it carries remotely operated and autonomous undersea drones that will collect data. Expected to hit the seas in 2024, the ship will carry out operations in both UK and international waters.

British and US intelligence also have raised concern over Russian submarines that have been “aggressively operating” near Atlantic undersea cables. The Royal Navy ship will be tasked with monitoring and protecting against attacks that both governments say could cripple critical national infrastructure.

Focus on global need vs. ideology

While it’s impossible to dismiss the concern raised by various governmental bodies about the safety and security of subsea cable networks, it’s important to focus on the value that such cables bring to citizens and enterprises around the world.

Globally, according to the World Economic Forum, only 55 percent of households have an internet connection”. While 87 percent of homes in developed nations have the Internet, only 47 percent of homes in developing nations and 19 percent of homes in the least-developed nations have Internet access.

Countries with limited access to the Internet lack the ability to attract new business into the region, while citizens of those countries lack the ability to access services like telemedicine and education. Moreover, the lack of Internet access drives up the cost of connectivity far beyond what most can pay. For instance,according to the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, streaming a standard-definition video for one hour in sub-Sahara Africa takes 1GB of data and costs nearly 40 percent of the average monthly wage.

There’s no question that politics and government conflict will continue to impact global communications networks, but available capacity on existing subsea networks has the potential to address some of the disparity that exists in terms of Internet access. That’s a message that political and security leaders from all nations need to hear as they look to provide and secure global communications systems.

By Jim Fagan