My first encounter with submarine cables takes place on the morning of 11 March 2020 on Parée Préneau beach near Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie on France’s west coast. It’s not yet eight o’clock, but this stretch of sand is unusually lively. A group of 15 people in hardhats and hi-vis vests look out to the Atlantic. Bobbing a few hundred metres offshore is a cluster of small boats and on one of them – the Miniplon – four commercial divers await orders.
Preparations are underway for a unique event: the ‘landing’ (installation) of Dunant, Google’s second intercontinental internet cable. A 12-fibre-pair cable with a capacity of nearly 300 terabits per second, Dunant is one of the most powerful cables ever commissioned. In a few months, it will cover a distance of 6,600km to connect the US city of Virginia Beach, south of Washington, DC, to a Google data centre in the Belgian city of Saint-Ghislain. The cable will cross the French coastline, and it is this first section of the cable, measuring 5km, that is about to be deployed.
‘It’s not every day a cable crosses the Atlantic,’ says Richard Brault, project manager at Merceron, which has mobilised two excavators for the job. ‘It’s a first in 20 years, in fact…’ What will it be used for? ‘YouTube, online gaming,’ explains a member of the team, waiting on the beach.
But until the churning, foaming swells of the ocean calm down, the operation is on hold. Only the weather doesn’t show any sign of letting up. ‘It feels like it’s getting worse,’ says Olivier Ségalard. A project manager with the French operator Orange, he is in charge of overseeing Dunant’s landing in France.
At nine o’clock they admit temporary defeat: the mission is postponed. The Miniplon heads back to the harbour. Already the work has been held up for two weeks. ‘It’s starting to become really annoying – every day lost costs us €30,000 for the boat and the equipment,’ says Isabelle Delestre, press officer for Orange.
But there are bigger worries. Google must respect the activities of the Kentish plover, a small, protected shorebird measuring around 15cm in height that nests on the beaches of the Vendée from mid-March – directly along the cable’s route. And nesting season is fast approaching.
In a few days, Google, one of the most powerful companies in the world, will not be allowed to deploy Dunant until the Kentish plovers’ chicks have hatched – leaving hundreds of millions of internet users hoping for more bandwidth to chomp at the bit. ‘All this for cat videos!’ sighs Ségalard.
Most of us believe that our calls, photos, and videos fly over our heads, perhaps because antennas (3G, 4G, 5G) come first to mind regarding our digital activity. But in reality, close to 99 per cent of the world’s data traffic travels not through the air, but via the cables deployed underground and at the bottom of the sea.
Undersea cables are made of fine metal encased in polyethylene (plastic), and these enclose the fibre-optic pairs (glassfibre strands) through which coded information in the form of light pulses transit at a speed of around 200,000km per second.
Exceptional progress has been made in fibre technology since the first transatlantic optic cable, TAT-8, was laid between the US and Europe in 1988, and which allowed more than 40,000 telephone calls to be made simultaneously. Today, Dunant can handle five billion telephone calls per second. Laying these cables costs hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is still 10 times less expensive than digging trenches on land.
Nowadays, an atlas of information highways maps out an un-even network, from well-serviced hubs such as Djibouti in East Africa, the Suez Canal, and the Strait of Malacca which connects the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) and the South China Sea; to deserted areas, such as the Arctic and the waters off North Korea.
Some cables are very short, such as Amerigo Vespucci, which spans around 85km between two islands off the coast of Venezuela. Others, such as SEA-ME-WE-3 (standing for South-East Asia, Middle East, and Western Europe), spans 39,000km between northern Europe and Australia. The network is growing at speed. At this rate, there could be a thousand in operation by 2030.
‘The industry is booming,’ one source tells me. ‘They’re building around the clock.’ Overall, the turnover worldwide is growing by 11 per cent annually, and is expected to reach $22 billion by 2025. Yet relatively little is known about it: the industry prefers to keep a low profile. ‘One of the best ways of protecting an undersea cable is to not talk about it’, says one of its engineers.
The sector is structured around the owners of the cables (typically, operators such as Deutsche Telekom, AT&T, Telecom Italia, Vodafone, and Orange), manufacturers (such as Alcatel Submarine Networks, SubCom, and NEC), and ship owners, which instal and repair the infrastructure (Global Marine Systems Ltd, in particular). But now the big five US tech companies, or Faang (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google), have their own undersea cables – a serious disruption for telecom operators.
Facebook, for example, has its own team dedicated to its subsea foundations. And for good reason: in 2013, within a few hours of the social network launching the video autoplay feature, ‘it took up so much bandwidth that their IT infrastructure almost went down,’ a submarine telecom specialist tells me.
Since then, the cable industry has had to accommodate a growing number of internet giants that want to control the conduits of their content. ‘On the Atlantic route, the Faangs had five per cent market share three years ago,’ says an expert. ‘Today, they have 50 per cent, and it’s expected to increase to 90 per cent in the next three years.’
The real power, however, lies not with the owners and manufacturers of these cables, but with the nations over whose territory they are laid. Not only can it generate vast amounts of money, it is also key to determining – and shifting – the balance of world power.
Egypt has long held a key strategic position for cable routing. The Suez Canal offers the shortest data-transmission route between Europe and Asia, and, for decades, the country has squeezed millions of US dollars in tolls from operators. ‘It costs as much money to cross the 200km of Egypt as it does to lay the fibre from Singapore to France,’ grumbled an expert from the undersea cable industry (probably exaggerating the numbers).
But Google has come up with a workaround. In 2024, it plans to route the Blue-Raman cable (which connects India to Italy) along alternative routes. One portion will run from India to Jordan via Saudi Arabia; the other portion will pick up the signal and pass through Israel to Italy. Other than halving transport costs, this will also diversify information highway routing: its data will no longer be at the sole mercy of Egypt.
In the same spirit, the future Europe-Persia Express Gateway (Epeg) cable, operated by Vodafone, among others, will pass through Iran. The redrawn world map of undersea cables, therefore, exposes new geopolitics, whereby regions and states stand to gain from advantageous positioning: the Suez Canal, but also Britain, the Malacca Strait, Djibouti, and Washington State. But these planetary hotspots also stand to lose out as other countries offer to expand the reach of the web: Australia, France and Brazil, which recently connected to Portugal without crossing, as is customary, the US.
It has been observed that with the continuing diversification of the network comes a relative decrease in the US domination of the internet’s architecture. The same has happened to the UK, and indeed Europe more widely, as it faces heightened competition from Asian cables transporting African data.
For the sake of influence and economic growth, but also the resilience of the network, it’s in every nation’s interest not to sit on the sidelines, but to be at the centre of this fibre-optic web that is growing unstoppably.
There are already a lot of cables running in the Far East and Eurasia region. So, one country that could certainly not be accused of sitting on the sidelines is China. It is using its maritime highways to progressively shift the balance of powers from Western actors to the ‘Global South’.
In 2015, China’s main economic regulator, the National Development and Reform Commission, published a report that, decades from now, may be remembered for its role in changing the face of the Earth. In it, Chinese bureaucrats outlined a vast transnational fibre-optic cable construction programme to ‘create an Information Silk Road’.
Two years prior, President Xi Jinping had launched a titanic project to construct road, rail, and port infrastructure from China to West and East Africa, via Central Asia and the Indian Ocean. By 2027, $1,200 billion will have been invested in around 60 countries to realise this ambition, on to which Beijing has now tacked a digital programme.
Beijing is believed to have put into service – or is currently laying – fibre-optic networks in 76 countries, from its nearby neighbours to as far as Latin America. One of the most emblematic of these is the Peace (Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe) cable, which, in 2022, connected the cities of Karachi in Pakistan and Marseille in France.
China has three outcomes in mind. First, the extension of its economic interests: by multiplying its fibre-optic networks, China can extend to the rest of the world the digital services of its own Faang; Batx (search engine Baidu, e-commerce site Alibaba, online gaming and mobile app group Tencent, and connected devices firm Xiaomi), has a combined commercial value of $1,885 billion.
Second, the expansion of its political model. Beijing’s Digital Silk Road already allows it to market its surveillance technologies around the world. But third, it would ensure the protection of its security interests. By building its own communication infrastructure, China intends to counter what it sees as the West’s ‘intolerable’ network hegemony over the central architecture of the internet.
Strategists of the Chinese Communist Party are convinced that ‘the struggle for information dominance will greatly influence the outcome of future wars,’ according to one researcher.
This analysis of Beijing’s strategy indicates to what extent it is laying down, day after day, the milestones of a ‘veritable geopolitical road map, while we, in the West, are just doing business,’ a specialist told me anonymously.
The role of fibre-optic cables in the expansion of China’s soft power is essential, crucial even, given all the infrastructure set up along the new silk roads. ‘Transporting raw materials is important; transporting data has become even more so,’ noted Jean Devos, a former director of Alcatel Submarcom.
Previously, the Chinese had been judged as being too far behind to possibly catch up with the likes of the US, UK, France, and Japan… Enter Huawei.
In the early 2000s, the multinational was already industrialising optical technologies and terminals, but lacked expertise for manufacturing cables. It knew how to manufacture repeaters (which amplify or add to incoming electrical signals and retransmits them), but ‘acquired’ the know-how for connecting and sealing them from Alcatel and SubCom contractors.
Well into the 2000s, Huawei approached the UK company Global Marine – one of the biggest undersea cable installers in the world. Huawei pitched its ambitions in internet cable installation, and its expertise in fibre-optic systems. Global Marine had its eye on the Chinese market; it made sense to join forces. And so, in 2008, the joint venture Huawei Marine Networks was born. Several British consultants also weighed in with their expertise. According to numerous sources, the joint venture facilitated, over a period of 10 years, the transfer of Global Marine’s technology to Huawei.
It didn’t stop there. ‘The British consultants [also] opened their network to the Chinese: suppliers of aluminium, copper, electronic components, welders, stranding machines, etc,’ Devos said. ‘An entire ecosystem that was foreign to Huawei. The Chinese caught up by 10 years in the whole affair.’
The joint venture prospered until 2019, when Global Marine sold its stake in Huawei Marine Networks – including its fleet of cable ships – to the Chinese company Hengtong Optic-Electric for $285 million. The acquisition propelled Hengtong to another level entirely, as it became one of the rare companies to control the entire fibreoptic value chain: cables, repeaters, terminals, and fleet.
‘They can go up to anyone and offer a turnkey [complete] system,’ Devos said. The West only has itself to blame. ‘We are completely naive.’
Things are moving fast. With its Digital Silk Road, China will now need to secure its cable infrastructure – an ideal target in the event of a conflict. The West, preoccupied with the security of its information highways, has already identified this challenge.
Long before he became prime minister, Rishi Sunak drew attention to this risk in a report, published in 2017. In the report’s foreword, written by Admiral James Stavridis, he stated: ‘The risk posed to these… connections that carry everything from military intelligence to global financial data is real and growing.’ The slightest attack, he continued, would be ‘potentially catastrophic’.
The report also noted that Russia would not be averse to severing telecommunication cables, as it did when it invaded Crimea, to control the flow of information during a time of war. Or Moscow could use its submarines to tap into cables carrying information.
The reality of such a threat is a subject of debate. Though former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the country’s Security Council, said earlier this year that there were no longer any ‘moral limits’ to stop Moscow destroying its enemies’ undersea communication cables.
Last October, when a cable that supplies internet to the Shetland Islands was cut in two places, causing internet outages, there were questions raised around the cause. Accidents are not uncommon – some speculated that a fishing trawler may have been responsible – but it was also reported that a Russian underwater ‘research’ ship may have been linked to the damage.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said at the time: ‘We’re constantly having to defend ourselves against digital attack from state and non-state actors.’
China’s new material interests are already subject to regular attacks. This is evident nowhere more so than along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Cpec): 3,000km of communication networks combining road, rail and electricity infrastructure between Kashgar, in the Xinjiang region, and the Gwadar Port in Pakistan.
It traces the overland extension of the Peace cable, but the Cpec – and therefore the cable – crosses unstable regions, starting with Balochistan in Pakistan. China’s interests there come under regular assaults orchestrated by Baloch separatists: an armed attack at a hotel in Gwadar where Chinese expatriates were staying; an ambush of a convoy of oil workers; an attack on the Karachi stock exchange.
Deliberate sabotage aside, submarine cables are also vulnerable to accidental damage – whether environmental, or by ships or sealife. Up to 150 cases of cable damage are reported annually. Anchors of fishing boats and cargo ships are the number one threat to internet infrastructure, ahead of offshore wind farms and deepwater drilling activities. The issue is that the vessel’s captain (or rather the insurer) must bear the costs of repairs, which can be as much as $1 million. Cohabitation with fishermen is therefore not always tranquil.
The increase in the number of hurricanes could also worsen shifts in the seafloor, and compromise certain sections of the web. And then there is the damage caused by sealife such as sharks, whose bites can pierce through the cable insulation. ‘Once they even found a shark tooth in a cable,’ relayed an expert.
‘Vandals at sea’ also pose a risk. For example, in 2007, ‘pirates’ gained notoriety for bringing to the surface an 11km section of the T-V-H (Thailand-Vietnam-Hong Kong) cable system off the coast of Vietnam, with a view to selling the salvaged metal as scrap.
As a result of all of this, ‘ocean emergency brigades’ are constantly patching up cables, and despatching submersibles that can identify the damaged section, before replacing it. ‘If cable ships weren’t spending their time repairing them, the world’s internet would be down in barely a few months,’ warned an undersea cable specialist.
So, what of the future? That China is forging ahead in its Digital Silk Road is indisputable. But in the shorter term, its ascension in the cable industry doesn’t necessarily entail Western reliance on infrastructure ‘made in China’.
Arguably, a more pressing concern in the West is the stability of the industry, which is almost entirely privatised, given how relatively small it is: and whether the economic model will continue to be viable. On a global scale, the industry works with no more than some 30 transoceanic cable-laying ships, divided primarily between three key players: the French company Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN); the US company SubCom; and the Japanese company NEC. ‘The global infrastructure relies on suppliers who are not particularly resilient,’ according to Bertrand Clesca, a consultant in optical telecommunications. Were they to fall on hard times, one could think of the Faangs putting their price war on hold to avoid ‘sinking’ their strategic partners. ‘Perhaps they’ve even considered, in the worst-case scenario, buying up one of them,’ Clesca would like to believe. The risk emerging from that would be states finding themselves subordinate to powerful private conglomerates, whose financial needs do not necessarily coincide with national security imperatives.
How far will their control of the framework of the internet go? And what kind of situations created by reliance on the most powerful companies in the world will Westerners find themselves in? The answers remain unclear.
But as one telecommunications expert points out: ‘We are currently witnessing the privatisation of a part of the internet by a clutch of players, and nobody is batting an eyelid.’ So for all the cat videos, all the posts of silly gifs and memes, internet users need to realise that behind the fun and games is a pursuit of power, between major corporations and nation states. And it is a pursuit that is accelerating at a mind-boggling speed.
Abridged extract from The Dark Cloud: How the Digital World is Costing the Earth, by Guillaume Pitron, translated by Bianca Jacobsohn (£20, Scribe); order at books.telegraph.co.uk