Who Owns the Real Information System

In January 2022, the head of the UK’s armed forces has warned that Russia submarine activity is threatening underwater cables that are crucial to communication systems around the world. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said undersea cables that transmit internet data are ‘the world’s real information system,’ and added that any attempt to damage then could be considered an act of war.

The internet seems like a post- physical environment where things like viral posts, virtual goods and metaverse concerts just sort of happen. But creating that illusion requires a truly gargantuan—and quickly-growing—web of physical connections. Fiber-optic cable, which carries 95% of the world’s international internet traffic, links up pretty much all of the world’s data centers…

Where those fiber-optic connections link up countries across the oceans, they consist almost entirely of cables running underwater—some 1.3 million kilometers (or more than 800,000 miles) of bundled glass threads that make up the actual, physical international internet. And until recently, the overwhelming majority of the undersea fiber-optic cable being installed was controlled and used by telecommunications companies and governments. Today, that’s no longer the case.

In less than a decade, four tech giants— Microsoft, Google parent Alphabet, Meta (formerly Facebook ) and Amazon —have become by far the dominant users of undersea-cable capacity. Before 2012, the share of the world’s undersea fiber-optic capacity being used by those companies was less than 10%. Today, that figure is about 66%.  In the next three years, they are on track to become primary financiers and owners of the web of undersea internet cables connecting the richest and most bandwidth-hungry countries on the shores of both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

By 2024, the four are projected to collectively have an ownership stake in more than 30 long-distance undersea cables, each up to thousands of miles long, connecting every continent on the globe save Antarctica. In 2010, these companies had an ownership stake in only one such cable—the Unity cable partly owned by Google, connecting Japan and the U.S. Traditional telecom companies have responded with suspicion and even hostility to tech companies’ increasingly rapacious demand for the world’s bandwidth. Industry analysts have raised concerns about whether we want the world’s most powerful providers of internet services and marketplaces to also own the infrastructure on which they are all delivered. This concern is understandable. Imagine if Amazon owned the roads on which it delivers packages.

But the involvement of these companies in the cable-laying industry also has driven down the cost of transmitting data across oceans for everyone, even their competitors….Undersea cables can cost hundreds of millions of dollars each. Installing and maintaining them requires a small fleet of ships, from surveying vessels to specialized cable-laying ships that deploy all manner of rugged undersea technology to bury cables beneath the seabed. At times they must lay the relatively fragile cable—at some points as thin as a garden hose—at depths of up to 4 miles.

All of this must be done while maintaining the right amount of tension in the cables, and avoiding hazards as varied as undersea mountains, oil-and-gas pipelines, high-voltage transmission lines for offshore wind farms, and even shipwrecks and unexploded bombs…In the past, trans-oceanic cable-laying often required the resources of governments and their national telecom companies. That’s all but pocket change to today’s tech titans. Combined, Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta and Amazon poured more than $90 billion into capital expenditures in 2020 alone…

Most of these Big Tech-funded cables are collaborations among rivals. The Marea cable, for example, which stretches approximately 4,100 miles between Virginia Beach in the U.S. and Bilbao, Spain, was completed in 2017 and is partly owned by Microsoft, Meta and Telxius, a subsidiary of Telefónica, the Spanish telecom.  Sharing bandwidth among competitors helps ensure that each company has capacity on more cables, redundancy that is essential for keeping the world’s internet humming when a cable is severed or damaged. That happens around 200 times a year, according to the International Cable Protection Committee, a nonprofit group. 

There is an exception to big tech companies collaborating with rivals on the underwater infrastructure of the internet. Google, alone among big tech companies, is already the sole owner of three different undersea cables

Excerpts from Christopher Mims, Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft Weave a Fiber-Optic Web of Power, WSJ, Jan. 15, 2022

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