Tag Archives: fiber optic cables

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

The Power of Submarine Cables

Access to ultra-fast internet cables in London is likely to make financial firms reluctant to move out of London even after Britain leaves the European Union, a study by the European Central Bank has found.

But an ECB study found that any withdrawal from London would likely be gradual as firms would be loath to give up on Britain’s fibre-optic cables, crucial for ultra-fast electronic trading.

“The UK’s advantage as a hub for trading using fibre-optic cables, combined with institutional inertia, suggest that any relocation of trading after Brexit, if at all, would likely be gradual,” the ECB said in its study.  Around 84 percent of transactions in euro are initiated outside the euro area, with Britain taking the lion’s share at 43 percent, according to a survey by the Bank for International Settlement cited in the ECB study.

“Technology has economically important implications for the distribution of foreign exchange transactions across financial centres, as a result,” the ECB said.   “Undersea fibre-optic cables provide a competitive advantage to financial centres located near oceans, like Singapore, because they are directly connected to the internet backbone, at the expense of landlocked cities like Zurich,” it added.

Excerpts from Fast Internet Likely to Keep Trading in London After Brexit: ECB, Reuters, July 5, 2017.

Internet Cables and US Security

A real-estate magnate is financing Google’s and Facebook Inc.’s new trans-Pacific internet cable, the first such project that will be majority-owned by a single Chinese company.  Wei Junkang, 56, is the main financier of the cable between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, a reflection of growing interest from China’s investors in high-tech industries.   It will be the world’s highest-capacity internet link between Asia and the U.S.

For Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook, the undersea cable provides a new data highway to the booming market in Southeast Asia. Google and Facebook, which are blocked in China but seeking ways back in, declined to comment on market possibilities in China. Google said the project, called the Pacific Light Cable Network, will be its sixth cable investment and will help it provide faster service to Asian customers…

Backers hope to have Pacific Light operating in late 2018. The elder Mr. Wei’s company, Pacific Light Data Communication Co., will own 60%, Eric Wei said, and Google and Facebook will each own 20%. The project cost is estimated at $500 million, and the Chinese company hired U.S. contractor TE SubCom to manufacture and lay the 17-millimeter wide, 7,954-mile long cable…

The cable project requires U.S. government approval, including a landing license from the Federal Communications Commission and a review by Team Telecom, a committee of officials from the departments of defense, homeland security and justice….

Pacific Light will likely face higher scrutiny from Team Telecom due to the controlling interest by a foreign investor, said Bruce McConnell, global vice president of the EastWest Institute and a former senior cybersecurity official with the Department of Homeland Security.

Team Telecom rarely rejects a landing license application, Mr. McConnell said, but cable operators must agree to security terms.“The agreement is usually heavily conditioned to ensure that (U.S.) security concerns are met,” he said.

The terms often require an American operator of the cable to assist U.S. authorities in legal electronic surveillance, including alerting regulators if foreign governments are believed to have accessed domestic data, according to copies of agreements filed with the FCC. The U.S. landing party usually must also be able to cut off U.S. data from the international network if asked…

More than 99% of the world’s internet and phone communications rely on fiber-optic cables crisscrossing continents and ocean floors. That makes these cables critical infrastructure to governments and a target for espionage.

One of the Eric Wei’s businesses is a Chinese alternative to the QR code called a D9 code, which the company promotes as a “safe” alternative to foreign technology.

Excerpts from  China Firm Backs Asia-US Cable, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 16, 2017

Fiber Optic Cables and Surveillance

[T]he technology known as distributed acoustic sensing (DAS)… allows underground fibre-optic cables, like those used by telecoms companies, to be turned into a giant string of microphones. They can then be used to monitor all sorts of sensitive locations, from oil and gas pipelines to railway tracks, military bases and international borders. In its latest guise, DAS is even being used to help make hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is known, more efficient at releasing natural gas and oil trapped in rocks.

There are some limitations to the technology. Its powers of hearing are not sufficiently acute to pick up a conversation, for example. And since the cables inside buildings are typically a tangle of short lengths interrupted by junction-boxes, it is unlikely to work there. However, a long cable buried outdoors can provide the equivalent of a microphone every ten metres.  Algorithms are used to establish acoustic “fingerprints” for the sounds that are detected; and depending where and when they occur, each is assigned a level of risk, says Magnus McEwen-King, OptaSense’s managing director. Footsteps around a guarded facility at midday may not be unusual, but at 2am they would be.

OptaSense is also using the system to monitor sounds coming from below ground, in particular those produced by the water, sand and chemicals pumped under high pressure to fracture rock during fracking. There is concern about exactly what is going on underground, and in particular if the process might contaminate aquifers. Various seismic sensors can be used to monitor the fracking process, sometimes from test bores drilled nearby. But it is a costly and tricky process.

Shell and other oil companies are using a DAS system, which OptaSense calls vertical seismic profiling, to monitor their fracking. It uses a fibre-optic cable inserted into a well bore to build up an acoustic picture of the fracking fluid going into the rock at multiple levels. This means that potential problems, such as blockages, or leaks from one layer of rock to another, can be spotted before they become serious. And by having a clearer idea of how much fluid is going where, the fracking process can be constantly adjusted so that it runs in the most efficient way.

Listening for intruders and monitoring the efficiency of fracking are just two of the potentially lucrative applications of DAS technology. No doubt there will be others in the pipeline.

Acoustic sensing: The ear underground, Economist,  January 4, 2014, at 62