The geopolitics of undersea connectivity

Submarine cables that cross seas and oceans are the backbone of the Internet. For decades, their main promoters were telecommunications corporations, allied to governments.

Now tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon are beginning to take the lead in investing in this segment, as is happening with an ambitious project to link the growing economies of Southeast Asia with their U.S. headquarters.

What is the impact of the new High Tech submarine project?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B. and Sergio A. Urquijo M.
When we think of internet infrastructure, images of antennas, underground cables, poles and even satellites come to mind. But we rarely think about the real backbone of the network: the very long submarine fiber optic cables that make possible the transmission of the huge volumes of data required to ensure connectivity to hundreds of millions of people around the world.


The global network of more than 400 submarine cables distributed across the world’s seas[1], are expensive and require great technological deployment, so they have traditionally been promoted by large connectivity companies, with heavy investments from the States. Companies such as CW Networks, ATT, America Móvil, Sprint, News Corporation, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom or Vodafoposeen are the owners of most of the submarine fiber optic networks in the world, especially those that cross the North Atlantic [2].


Content generators also want to control the infrastructure

As large technology companies of content platforms, such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook began to demand more bandwidth for data transmission, there was also the need to have greater control over the infrastructure, i.e. network sovereignty, thus reducing the risk associated with the lack of infrastructure management, in other words to avoid a virtual eviction, which although in theory is not possible due to the principle of network neutrality, it is a latent risk.

It is because of the above that in 2016, content management companies, driven by the explosion of video demand and online sales, began to invest, first in projects led by telcos, and then in their own connectivity initiatives, with multiple technologies, both experimental and traditional.

In those five years, Google went from relying on third-party cables to having a stake in 8.5% of the world’s submarine cables, estimated at more than 1,200,000 kilometers[3].

The same steps were followed by Facebook, with 91,000 km of cables; Amazon, with 30,500, and Microsoft, with 6,600 km. And so, suddenly, these new players are beginning to occupy an important niche in the most fundamental communications infrastructure of the moment.

The key word: the cloud

The question is, why did it become so essential for these companies to own networks that they used to rent? The answer lies in the concept of cloud, which paradoxically refers to something that is on terrestrial servers and CDNs scattered around the planet and whose data transmission, 96%, runs through the dark and icy ocean floor. Only a tiny fraction, less than 3% of internet backbone data traffic uses satellites or spectrum, especially for last mile services, although the advent of 5G will surely increase that percentage.

The huge amount of information stored in the cloud requires not only stable transmission, but also speed and low latency, which forces both storage providers (the largest in the world is, precisely, Amazon) and the services that use that storage (such as Google, with Youtube and Drive) to have more and more cables.

Similarly, Netflix, whose platform as of 2020 occupied a staggering 37% of US domestic data traffic, which is replicated in its international subscribers, was also expected to invest in submarine cables. However, the company has not stated its intention to do so, and has instead opted for a large investment in CDNs[4].

On the other hand, the submarine superhighway between the United States and Europe has been met with serious competition: the Pacific Highway, which links the US market with Japan and with the growing and promising economies of Southeast Asia (remember that, for example, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, and its 300 million inhabitants are increasing their Internet consumption year by year).

The Internet: at the centre of geopolitical intrigues

Of course, the big player that changed the balance in the cable business of the 21st century is China, and it was to China that all eyes of Western investors turned. So much so that the largest mega-project of the technology companies Google, Facebook and Amazon, CAP-1, began in alliance with China Mobile and departed from the port of Hong Kong to reach California, passing through the Philippines. The six-strand fiber optic cable, which will allow a transmission capacity of 108 Tbps, was intended to be 14,000 kilometers long, and to be inaugurated in 2022[5].

In 2019, however, the project was set back by the trade and political war between Donald Trump’s administration and China, caused in part by alarm at the Asian giant’s growing control of the world’s information and in part by the populist need to find an external enemy that “threatened” American trade.

Following the controversial accusation that Beijing was using the data networks it invested in to steal critical information from other countries, the Trump administration launched a plan called Clean Networks. This put pressure on the country’s investors to keep new networks from touching Chinese-controlled hubs. Against this backdrop, China Mobile withdrew from the CAP-1 project, and other projects, such as Google and Amazon’s “Apricot” network, which will strengthen communications between Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore, also left China and its companies out in the cold.

Although with the early end of the Trump administration and its populist measures it is almost certain that these measures will be relaxed and China will again be part of these plans, the truth is that the situation left the megaproject in the hands of technology companies and some allies of mobile telephony, so a new era in submarine internet traffic can be expected. An era in which these companies can surpass in cable laying their previous suppliers, the telcos, and thus change the whole balance of the already concentrated and highly private network infrastructure.

In conclusion, submarine connectivity is the main technological infrastructure that supports and hosts the so-called CLOUD, thanks to the fiber optic cables that cross oceans and connect continents, hundreds of millions of people access the network daily, which has made this technology the most neuralgic for the control of contemporary geopolitics, For this reason, governments and technology providers have invested colossal sums of money, in an effort that is now joined by content providers such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, which, in search of greater sovereignty, are promoting underwater connectivity projects around the world.