Contribution by Louis Gavelle,
3rd year student in Essca Bachelor’s degree in International Management.
“Interested in the current issues and challenges that we are facing, I chose this subject in order to learn more about the technologies that surround us and allow us to communicate at extraordinary speeds. I was especially able to discover that this subject is at the core of international relations, but that it can also, as it is often the case, be a source of conflicts.”
Undersea cables are the essential support of information flows (telephony and internet), on an international scale. Based on the seabed, at a depth that can reach several thousand meters, they provide data transmission at an unprecedented speed and reliability, and play a major role in globalization, especially for financial transactions. I tried to understand the extent to which those cables can have an importance in international relations, and what their limits are. It turns out they could cause a lot more damage than we think.
I – Origin and functioning of undersea cables
The first undersea cables connected Europe to the United States’ East coast during the 19th century. Since then, they increased and improved a lot.
Nowadays, they are supposed to last 25 years, but the first cable that was put in service in 1859 lasted only 20 days. Then, since the last century, everything accelerated. Nearly 800 000 km of cables are placed undersea, to provide us all types of data necessary to communicate, give information, share documents, etc. Most of them are served by East Asia, Europe, and United States.
They represent 95% of global data traffic, one single cable can connect 200 million people; that is why it is essential to protect them in order to avoid their damage as much as possible.
Technically, a cable is composed of different optical fibers, very fine and resistant, and functioning in pairs (one for each direction).
They are providing a data speed of 4 Tbit/Hour, in other words, 200 000 times more than a “random” internet connection.
The cable is an optical fiber, with a “sheath” around composed with various metal and plastic materials. The aim is to make them as resistant as possible, flexible, sealed, and electrically conductive while underwater. The electric current enables transmitters disposed at intervals of 100 kilometers to process again and re conduct the signal that can deteriorate after some distance.
In 2018, we could inventory 340 of them (many different sources claim more or less this number), but we cannot know precisely how many there are all around the world. The longest cable is the one that connects France to Singapore, its length is 25 000 kilometers. To link 2 continents costs around 700 million euros, and 2 years of construction.
The boats called “cable ships” are used to install the cables and fix them in case of damage. To install them, they respect a strictly defined, most appropriate path, following an extensive study of the seabed prior to the operation. Near the coastline, they are buried to avoid any damage, mainly by fishing nets.
We can notice that a lot of measures and efforts are put in those different projects to set up and protect those cables, but what are their issues and benefits for international relations and operations?
II – Economical, political and strategical issues
Facing with the costs and challenges of these cables, none of the so-called “GAFAM” (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) is absent from this digital market and development race.
The involvement of the GAFAM responds to economic aims and strategic imperatives: to become indispensable to States, to potentially control one of the densest flows of information, and to exercise an unavoidable monopoly worldwide, capable of imposing its conditions everywhere.
The most powerful cable was jointly put in service in 2018 by two of them: Microsoft and Facebook. It is named MAREA and connects the state of Virginia (USA) to Bilbao (Spain), for a total distance of 6600 kilometers.
It is able to transmit data at an unbelievable speed, with 160 Tbits per second, according to Microsoft, and can stream 71 million of HD videos simultaneously. It has been produced and installed within a total of 48 months.
This highlights the extent to which cables are strategic advantages. To no surprise, transatlantic and transpacific links are the strongest and provide the most important quantity of data, especially between Europe and North America. Indeed, transatlantic links are already carrying 40% more data than between South and North America, according to Brad Smith, Microsoft’s President.
It is a strong but only temporary resistance to the Chinese takeover of global economics. The digital silk road China is currently setting up will provide it with access to and control of information redistribution hubs in the long term.
Unfortunately, we can observe blind spots in this cable network. These are the South Pacific, the South Atlantic, or even the Indian Ocean. Paradoxically, recent developments are shaking up this pattern. Indeed, Africa, however marginalized in other respects, is now equipped with cables, especially on its East coast. A cable network has been initiated by NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, to make the new information technologies play a growing role in Africa’s emergence.
Also, undersea fibers have been built to connect the United States and Brazil, which gives evidence to the desire of decentralizing cables by including the BRICS.
New territories with high geopolitical stakes, such as the Arctic, are not being left out: in April 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense launched the laying, scheduled to be effective in 2025, of an optic fiber cable with a total length of 12 700 kilometres.
We can thus observe an evolution in this discreet market, a trendto include emerging territories and make the world working together. This bodes well for the future.
III – Risk scenarios
Threatened by natural disasters, terrorist attacks or wiretaps, networks are the subject of particular attention because of their highly strategic nature.
Of course, cables can be damaged, and only one is sufficient to take an entire territory off the internet. That is what happened in 2015 in Algeria, a ship’s anchor had cut a cable, and the all country was taken off the internet for 5 days. More recently, in January 2018, in the Tonga islands in the Pacific, 100 000 people were deprived of internet access during 2 weeks.
We tend to forget or ignore their existence, but those examples remain us that those cables are both indispensable and vulnerable.
According to Jean Luc Vuillemin, the International director of Orange networks, we have enough cable ships to fix problems quickly, but an international crisis could be occurring, if cables were damaged by a foreign country or terrorist sabotage.
Because they are of primary importance, the damage of undersea cables could have major consequences for telecommunications and for the economies of countries affected by a failure.
It is therefore essential to be able to guarantee the integrity of the cable network because it determines the security of States and the defense of their economic and industrial position. We could actually ask ourselves who should be protecting these cables: private corporations only? Or a global governance board? The response given to this question will determine whether these cables will in the future represent a major area of conflict.
This student blogpost was produced within the framework of the 3rd-year module « International Issues and Challenges » of ESSCA’s Bachelor in International Management, following a course design developed by the EU-Asia Institute. The opinions expressed are of course those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the institute.