Tag Archives: submarine 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

Controlling Submarine Cables

September 21, 2017: the completion of another trans-Atlantic cable…dubbed Marea, Spanish for “tide”, the 6,600km bundle of eight fibre-optic threads, roughly the size of a garden hose, is the highest-capacity connection across the ocean. Stretching from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Bilbao, Spain, it is capable of transferring 160 terabits of data every second, the equivalent of more than 5,000 high-resolution movies. Facebook and Microsoft each own 25% of Marea, and the rest is owned by Telxius, a telecom infrastructure firm that is controlled by Spain’s Telefónica….

Such ultra-fast fibre networks are needed to keep up with the torrent of data flowing around the world. In 2016 traffic reached 3,544 terabits per second, roughly double the figure in 2014, according to TeleGeography, a market-research firm. And demand for international bandwidth is growing by 45% annually. Much traffic still comes from internet users, but a large and growing share is generated by big internet and cloud-computing companies syncing data across their networks of data centres around the world.

These firms used to lease all of their bandwidth from carriers such as BT and Level 3. But now they need so much network capacity that it makes more sense to lay their own dedicated pipes, particularly on long routes between their data centres. The Submarine Telecoms Forum, an industry body, reckons that 100,000km of submarine cable was laid in 2016, up from just 16,000km in 2015. TeleGeography predicts that a total of $9.2bn will be spent on such cable projects between 2016 and 2018, five times as much as in the previous three years.

Owning a private subsea fibre-optic network has several advantages, including more bandwidth, lower costs, and reduced delay, or “latency”. Having access to multiple cables on different routes also provides redundancy. If a cable is severed—by fishing nets, sharks, or an earthquake, among other things—traffic can be rerouted to another line. Most important, however, owning cables gives companies greater say over how their data traffic is managed and how equipment is upgraded. “The motivation is not so much saving money. It’s more about control,” says Julian Rawle, a submarine cable-industry expert…

“Within the next 20 years,” predicts Mr Rawle, “the whole concept of the telecom carrier as the provider of the network is going to disappear.”

Excerpts from Internet Infrastructure: Pipe Dreams, Economist, Oct. 7, 2017

Satellites for Africa

Africa’s demand for bandwidth is doubling every year, outpacing the laying of terrestrial telecom fibre links and encouraging commercial satellite operators to launch more units into orbit.   The arrival of submarine cables on Africa’s eastern shore just five years ago (see e.g. Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy)) was largely expected to herald the end of satellite connections, which had been the region’s only link to the outside world for decades.  But the opposite is happening with Africa’s political geography – notably its many landlocked countries, such as Zambia, South Sudan and Rwanda – bringing undersea cable plans back to earth.

“If you are to provide connectivity to the masses, fibre is not the way to do it. Do you think that it would make economical sense to take fibre to every village in Kenya?” said Ibrahima Guimba-Saidou, a senior executive for Africa at Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES SA “Satellite is still around and will continue to be around because it’s the best medium to extend connectivity to the masses.”  Hundreds of millions of people on the continent still have no access to the Internet, he said….

SES, one of the world’s largest commercial satellite operators, expects to launch its Astra2G satellite in 2014 after sending three others dedicated to Africa into orbit in the last year. Nine of its 56 satellites orbiting the earth are allocated for Africa.  Europe’s biggest satellite operator Eutelsat plans to fire off its tri-band EUTELSAT 3B this month after launching another to extend sub-Saharan Africa coverage in 2013.

The demand for Internet and data services in Africa has been driven by affordable mobile broadband connections. Mobile broadband users could grow by nearly eight times to 806 million by the end of 2018, according to Informa estimates.  New services such as digital television, onboard Internet connection for passenger aircraft, and delivering education and health services electronically will also drive demand.

The private sector has several initiatives to extend the capacity from submarine cables inland using terrestrial cables, but until that bottleneck is addressed, satellite operators are innovating to plug that black hole. One operator, O3B, or Other 3 Billion, has launched four of the next-generation medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites and plans two other launches in 2014 to make an orbital constellation of 12.  At a height of 8,000 kms (5,000 miles), the MEO units allow for faster speeds than traditional stationary satellites at 36,000 kms.  O3B’s tests have delivered capacity five times better than what traditional satellites can manage, making its technology suitable for both voice and interactive applications, said Omar Trujillo, vice president for Africa and Latin America….”A lot of applications for mining, oil and gas, will continue to be done by satellite,” he said. “The main market may not be international links for Nairobi or Johannesburg but will be communication for some of these remote areas that have had very low demand before, but now have fast-growing demand.

Excerpts from Helen Nyambura-Mwaura AFRICA INVESTMENT-Africa’s hunger for data sends satellites into orbit, Reuters, Apr. 17, 2014