Tag Archives: China and undersea cables

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

Conquering Virgin Digital Lands a Cable at a Time

Facebook  said it would back two new underwater cable projects—one in Africa and another in Asia in collaboration with Alphabet — that aim to give the Silicon Valley giants greater control of the global internet infrastructure that their businesses rely on.

The 2Africa project, a partnership between Facebook and several international telecom operators, said that it would add four new branches: the Seychelles, Comoro Islands, Angola and Nigeria. The project’s overall plan calls for 35 landings in 26 countries, with the goal of building an underwater ring of fiber-optic cables around Africa. It aims to begin operating in 2023… Separately, Facebook that it would participate in a 7,500-mile-long underwater cable system in Asia, called Apricot, that would connect Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. Google said that it would also join the initiative, which is scheduled to go live in 2024.

Driving the investments are costs and control. More than 400 commercially operated underwater cables, also known as submarine cables, carry almost all international voice and data traffic, making them critical for the economies and national security of most countries…Telecom companies own and operate many of these cables, charging fees to businesses that use them to ferry data. Facebook and Google used so much bandwidth that they decided about a decade ago that it would make sense to cut out the middleman and own some infrastructure directly.

Excerpts from Stu Woo, Facebook Backs Underwater Cable Projects to Boost Internet Connectivity, WSJ, Aug. 17, 2021

A Nasty Divorce: US-China Internet Cables

United States officials granted Google permission to turn on a high-speed internet link to Taiwan but not to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, citing national-security concerns in a ruling that underscores fraying ties between Washington and Beijing.“There is a significant risk that the grant of a direct cable connection between the United States and Hong Kong wouldpose an unacceptable risk to the national security and law enforcement interests of the United States,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in its decision, which was backed by the departments of Homeland Security and Defense. The agencies instead urged the Federal Communications Commission to grant Google owner Alphabet  permission to start using the portion of its 8,000-mile underwater Pacific Light cable that connects California to Taiwan. .

The decision threatens to end Hong Kong’s dominance as a top destination for U.S. internet cables and puts at risk several ongoing projects, including a Facebook backed fiber-optic line linking Los Angeles to Hong Kong and a Google-backed project linking Hong Kong to the U.S. territory of Guam.

Washington is turning to the self-ruling island of Taiwan, which the U.S. supports with arms sales and unofficial political ties despite Beijing’s claims that it is part of China. U.S. officials are also considering alternatives such as Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Google and Facebook originally teamed up to build Pacific Light to Hong Kong in 2016, continuing the Silicon Valley giants’ long-term strategy to take more control of the network pipes that connect their data centers. The web companies and their Chinese investment partners kept building the cable even as U.S. authorities withheld the regulatory approvals they needed to start using it.

Major international data projects are subject to review by Team Telecom, a coalition of federal agencies with national-security oversight. The panel has taken a hard line against China in recent years. Team Telecom in 2018 recommended for the first time the denial of a Chinese application—that of China Mobile —to provide telecom services through U.S. networks, citing national-security and law-enforcement concerns.

President Trump on April 4 2020 signed an executive order that puts the attorney general in charge of overseeing Team Telecom and gives the panel direct authority to review existing licenses to provide such services, including those issued earlier to Chinese state-owned operators China Telecom and China Unicom.

Excerpts from Drew FitzGerald and Kate O’Keeffe, U.S. Allows Google Internet Project to Advance Only if Hong Kong Is Cut Out, WSJ, Apr. 9, 2020

US v. China: The Slow and Sure Conquest of Internet Infrastructure


A new front has opened in the battle between the U.S. and China over control of global networks that deliver the internet. This one is beneath the ocean. While the U.S. wages a high-profile campaign to exclude China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from next-generation mobile networks over fears of espionage, the company is embedding itself into undersea cable networks that ferry nearly all of the world’s internet data.

About 380 active submarine cables—bundles of fiber-optic lines that travel oceans on the seabed—carry about 95% of intercontinental voice and data traffic, making them critical for the economies and national security of most countries. 

The Huawei Marine’s Undersea Cable Network majority owned by Huawei Technologies, has worked on some 90 projects to build or upgrade submarine cables around the world…US o fficials say the company’s knowledge of and access to undersea cables could allow China to attach devices that divert or monitor data traffic—or, in a conflict, to sever links to entire nations.  Such interference could be done remotely, via Huawei network management software and other equipment at coastal landing stations, where submarine cables join land-based networks, these officials say.

Huawei Marine said in an email that no customer, industry player or government has directly raised security concerns about its products and operations.Joe Kelly, a Huawei spokesman, said the company is privately owned and has never been asked by any government to do anything that would jeopardize its customers or business. “If asked to do so,” he said, “we would refuse.”

The U.S. has sought to block Huawei from its own telecom infrastructure, including undersea cables, since at least 2012. American concerns about subsea links have since deepened—and spread to allies—as China moves to erode U.S. dominance of the world’s internet infrastructure…..Undersea cables are owned mainly by telecom operators and, in recent years, by such content providers as Facebook and Google. Smaller players rent bandwidth.Most users can’t control which cable systems carry their data between continents. A handful of switches typically route traffic along the path considered best, based on available capacity and agreements between cable operators.

In June 2017, Nick Warner, then head of Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service, traveled to the Solomon Islands, a strategically located South Pacific archipelago. His mission, according to people familiar with the visit, was to block a 2016 deal with Huawei Marine to build a 2,500-mile cable connecting Sydney to the Solomons.  Mr. Warner told the Solomons’ prime minister the deal would give China a connection to Australia’s internet grid through a Sydney landing point, creating a cyber risk, these people said. Australia later announced it would finance the cable link and steered the contract to an Australian company.  In another recent clash, the U.S., Australia and Japan tried unsuccessfully in September 2018 to quash an undersea-cable deal between Huawei Marine and Papua New Guinea.

U.S. and allied officials point to China’s record of cyber intrusions, growing Communist Party influence inside Chinese firms and a recent Chinese law requiring companies to assist intelligence operations. Landing stations are more exposed in poorer countries where cyber defenses tend to be weakest, U.S. and allied officials said. And network management systems are generally operated using computer servers at risk of cyber intrusion. Undersea cables are vulnerable, officials said, because large segments lie in international waters, where physical tampering can go undetected. At least one U.S. submarine can hack into seabed cables, defense experts said. In 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden alleged that Britain and the U.S. monitored submarine cable data. The U.S. and its allies now fear such tactics could be used against them. American and British military commanders warned recently that Russian submarines were operating near undersea cables. In 2018, the U.S. sanctioned a Russian company for supplying Russian spies with diving equipment to help tap seabed cables.


The Ionian Sea Submarine Cable Project (Greece) 

China seeks to build a Digital Silk Road, including undersea cables, terrestrial and satellite links, as part of its Belt and Road plan to finance a new global infrastructure network. Chinese government strategy papers on the Digital Silk Road cite the importance of undersea cables, as well as Huawei’s role in them. A research institute attached to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, in a paper published in September, praised Huawei’s technical prowess in undersea cable transmission and said China was poised to become “one of the world’s most important international submarine cable communication centers within a decade or two.” China’s foreign and technology ministries didn’t respond to requests for comment…

Huawei Marine Networks

Bjarni Thorvardarson, then chief executive of the cable’s Ireland-based operator, said U.S. authorities raised no objections until 2012, when a congressional report declared Huawei Technologies a national security threat. Mr. Thorvardarson wasn’t convinced. “It was camouflaged as a security risk, but it was mostly about a preference for using U.S. technology,” he said. Under pressure, Mr. Thorvardarson dropped Huawei Marine from Project Express in 2013. The older cable network continued to use Huawei equipment.

The company is now the fourth-biggest player in an industry long dominated by U.S.-based SubCom and Finnish-owned Alcatel Submarine Networks. Japan’s NEC Corp is in third place.Huawei Marine is expected to complete 28 cables between 2015 and 2020—nearly a quarter of all those built globally—and it has upgraded many more, according to TeleGeography, a research company.

Excerpts from America’s Undersea Battle With China for Control of the Global Internet Grid , WSJ, Mar. 12, 2019