Tag Archives: internet 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

The Power of Data Pipelines: google, facebook and co.

The ships that lay electronic cables across the ocean floor look like cargo vessels with a giant fishing reel on one end. They move ponderously across the open water, lowering insulated wire into shallow trenches in the seabed as they go. This low-tech process hasn’t changed much since 1866, when the SS Great Eastern laid the first reliable trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, capable of transmitting eight words per minute. These days, the cables are made of optical fiber, can carry 100 terabits of data or more in a second, and aren’t owned only by telephone companies.

Among the newcomers are a few of the world’s leading internet companies, which have concluded that, given the cost of renting bandwidth, they may as well make their own connections. Facebook and Microsoft have joined with Spanish broadband provider Telefónica to lay a private trans-Atlantic fiber cable known as Marea. The three companies will divide up the cable’s eight fiber strands, with Facebook and Microsoft each getting two. The project, slated to be completed by the end of 2017, marks the first time Facebook has taken an active role in building a cable, rather than investing in existing projects or routing data through pipes controlled by traditional carriers. Marea will be Microsoft’s second private cable; a trans-Pacific one is scheduled to come online in 2017.

In June 2016, Google said it had finished a data pipeline running from Oregon to Taiwan, and it has at least two more coming: one from the U.S. to Brazil; the other, a joint project with Facebook, will connect Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Amazon.com made its first cable investment in May, announcing plans for a link between Australia and New Zealand and the U.S. Worldwide, 33 cable projects worth an estimated $8.1 billion are scheduled to be online by 2018, according to TeleGeography. That’s up from $1.6 billion worth of cables in the previous three years. And bandwidth demand is expected to double every two years. ..

Cables are just one way to increase the supply of bandwidth and cut costs, says Chetan Sharma, an analyst and telecom consultant. Facebook is also working on satellites, lasers, and drones to deliver internet access to remote places, and Google has experimented with hot air balloons. So far, undersea cables remain the best option for crossing oceans—they’re cheaper, far more reliable, and largely unregulated. The United Nations treats ocean cables in much the same manner as boat traffic, meaning companies can lay and repair cables in international waters pretty much wherever they please, provided they don’t damage existing ones.So Silicon Valley will continue to pour money into technology pioneered in the telegraph era. “It’s about taking control of our destiny,” says Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer for Microsoft’s cloud services division, Azure. “We’re nowhere near being built out.”

Excerpt from Bet you Own Broadband, Bloomberg, Oct. 20, 2016