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Navigating through the geopolitics of internet cables

In today’s hyper-connected world, where information flows seamlessly, it is easy to overlook the intricate web of infrastructure that makes it all possible.

Beneath the ocean’s surface lies a vast network of undersea internet cables, transmitting data and connecting nations in a web of digital interdependence.

However, beyond their technical marvel, these cables also serve as crucial assets, influencing the balance of power, security, and economic dynamics on a global scale.

Internet cables, also known as submarine cables, are an impressive feat of engineering that form the foundation of our global digital connectivity. Often as thin as a garden hose, they consist of several fiber optic strands bundled together and encased in layers of protective material.

The fiber optic strands are made of ultra-pure glass or plastic, which enables the transmission of data as pulses of light.

The assembly and maintenance of internet cables is a complex process that necessitates international collaboration and cooperation among countries.

These undersea cables connect various nations, and partnerships are crucial to establish cable landing points where the cables make landfall and interface with terrestrial networks. International cooperation in cable infrastructure involves multiple aspects.

Countries must negotiate agreements to permit the landing of cables on their shores, ensuring compliance with national laws and regulations.

This involves discussions on rights-of-way, permits, and other legal aspects to facilitate the installation and operation of the cables. Many large-scale undersea cable projects involve joint ventures between multiple telecommunications companies and consortiums consisting of international partners.

These partnerships pool resources, expertise, and investments to finance and build the cable networks.

International organizations play a role in facilitating cooperation among countries. For instance, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialized agency of the United Nations, provides a platform for member states to discuss matters related to global telecommunications infrastructure, including undersea cables.

The ITU promotes collaboration, harmonization of standards, and the exchange of information among its member countries.

The construction and operation of internet cable networks involve the participation of several major companies that are at the forefront of technological advancements and data-driven industries.

A notable player in the field is Google. The tech giant has been actively involved in various undersea cable projects, such as the Curie Cable System connecting the United States to Chile and the Dunant cable linking the United States to France.

Google’s investment in these cable systems aims to enhance its cloud services and ensure fast and reliable connectivity for its users worldwide.

In addition to tech giants, there are dedicated subsea cable operators that specialize in the construction and maintenance of undersea networks.

Companies like SubCom, Alcatel Submarine Networks, and Huawei Marine are renowned for their expertise in laying cables and providing ongoing maintenance services.

They work closely with consortiums, telecommunication companies, and internet service providers to ensure the efficient and reliable operation of internet cable networks.

Internet cables contribute to the economy is through the facilitation of global communication and information exchange. They enable businesses, governments, and individuals to connect with each other seamlessly, regardless of their geographical location.

This connectivity opens up new markets and opportunities for businesses to expand their customer base and reach a global audience.

Furthermore, internet cables serve as a catalyst for economic development in regions that were previously underserved by digital connectivity. By extending undersea cables to remote areas, countries can unlock the potential for economic growth, job creation, and increased access to education, healthcare, and other essential services.

The strategic importance of these cables can have significant implications for national security and international relations. Internet cables are critical for the exchange of information, making them attractive targets for surveillance activities by both state and non-state actors.

Governments may seek to intercept or monitor communications passing through these cables for intelligence gathering purposes. This raises concerns about privacy and civil liberties, as well as the potential for abuse of power.

Internet cables are vulnerable to cyber threats, including state-sponsored attacks. State actors may attempt to compromise or disrupt these networks to gain an advantage in cyberspace or as part of broader geopolitical strategies.

Such attacks can have far-reaching consequences, impacting not only national security but also diplomatic relations between countries.

Certain geographic locations where internet cables converge or pass through narrow straits can become chokepoints of strategic control.

Countries that have control over these critical locations can exert influence and potentially disrupt or manipulate data flows. This control can be leveraged for political purposes, such as censorship, information manipulation, or even economic coercion. The security of internet cables necessitates robust policy and regulatory frameworks.

For instance, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides a legal framework for the protection of submarine cables and prohibits their unauthorized interference.

Additionally, there is the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), an international organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the safeguarding of undersea cables. It brings together governments, cable owners, and other stakeholders to exchange information, develop best practices, and coordinate efforts to ensure the security and integrity of submarine cable networks.

There are many cases of which countries try to exert power through these cables and a significant example would be China.

China’s Digital Silk Road initiative, is a part of its broader Belt and Road Initiative and through the construction of undersea cables, it aims to connect Asia, Europe, and Africa, extending its influence and promoting its technological standards in these regions. This project allows China to exert soft power and shape narratives by controlling the communication infrastructure.

Another example of politics influencing internet cables is seen in the intervention by the Australian government. In 2018, Australia decided to block the involvement of Chinese companies in the construction of its national 5G network, citing national security concerns.

This decision extended to undersea cables, with the Australian government exerting control over cable landing points and closely scrutinizing the involvement of foreign entities.

Such interventions highlight the role of politics in determining who has access to and control over critical communication infrastructure. The U.S. has also expressed concerns about China’s involvement in undersea cable projects, raising issues of strategic advantages and potential espionage.

This competition reflects the broader geopolitical tensions and power struggles between the two superpowers.

However, China isn’t the only nation that aims to hold control over these undersea cables.

Russia has been making efforts to establish its own undersea cable network, namely in the Arctic, though the project seems to have taken a slow pace. These initiatives aim to improve Russia’s digital connectivity, enhance communication capabilities in remote regions, and assert its influence in the Arctic region.

Australia has also recognized the importance of undersea cables for its national security and digital connectivity. The government has invested in initiatives like the Coral Sea Cable System, which connects Australia with Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, strengthening regional cooperation and ensuring secure communication channels.

Additionally, with major tech giants on its side, the United States has a strong presence in the undersea cable industry, with companies investing in cable projects.

The U.S. government plays a significant role in overseeing the security and regulation of these cables, ensuring data protection and safeguarding national interests.

It is worth noting that governments have the authority to regulate the deployment of undersea cables within their territorial waters, imposing specific conditions or restrictions. These regulations can be influenced by political considerations, such as national security concerns, economic interests, or the desire to maintain control over communication flows.

When it comes to these cables, the motivations behind these efforts vary, but they generally revolve around enhancing connectivity, protecting national interests, and asserting influence in the global digital landscape.

The competition for control over internet cables is indicative of the increasing importance of digital infrastructure in today’s interconnected world.