The Paradox of Invisibility: Undersea Cables and the Geopolitics of Deep Seas


Map of the transatlantic cable route from 1858. Credit: Wikipedia.
  • Opinion by Manuel Manuelles (Barcelona)
  • Inter Press Service

One of these strategic infrastructures, whose importance is inversely proportional to their public awareness, also lies in the underwater environment. These are undersea cables, mostly made of fiberglass, through which more than 95% of the internet traffic circulates. A thick and growing network of undersea cables connecting the world and through which the lifeblood of the new economy, data, circulates.

The history of submarine cables is not new. The first submarine cables were installed around 1850 and the first intercontinental cable, 4,000 kilometers long, was commissioned in 1858, connecting Ireland to Newfoundland (Canada).

It was a telegraph cable at the time, and although the first telegram—sent by Queen Victoria to then-U.S. President James Buchanan—took seventeen hours to get from one point to another, it was considered a technological feat. From here the network grew unstoppably and the communication in the world changed.

Telephone cables followed and in 1956 the first intercontinental telephone cable was put into service, reconnecting Europe and America with thirty-six telephone lines that would soon become inadequate. Thirty years later, in 1988, the first fiber optic cable — replacing copper — was activated and in recent decades the submarine cable network has expanded dramatically, driven by the exponential growth in demand generated by the new digital economy and society.

It is therefore surprising that an infrastructure as crucial and relevant as this one goes so unnoticed, as it is the backbone of a society that is increasingly dependent on its digital dimension. This is what experts call the “paradox of invisibility.”

Because again, more than 95% of what we see every day on our mobile phones, computers, tablets and social networks, of what we upload or download from our clouds or view across platforms – and thus millions of people, institutions and companies from all over the world. world the world – go through this undersea cable system.

The financial transactions sent through this network amount to approximately $10 trillion per day; and the global market for submarine fiber optic cables was about $13.3 billion per year in 2020, projected to be $30.8 billion in 2026, with an annual growth rate of 14%.

However, a system that suffers from a significant governance deficit and at the same time is subject to substantial changes in its configuration and, above all, in the nature of its operators and owners. Moreover, the main operators of these networks have traditionally been the telecom companies or, above all, consortia of several companies in this sector.

Many of these companies were owned by or had a close relationship with the governments of their countries of origin — and therefore were linked in one way or another with some national or regional legislation — and they spawned a model that focused on the interests and interconnectivity of its customers.

In recent years, the growing need for hyperconnectivity from the major digital conglomerates (Google, Meta/Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) has made cabling the power users (currently using 66% of the capacity of the entire current network). In fact, from users, they have become the new dominant promoters of this kind of infrastructure, resulting in the amplification of their almost omnipotent power, and not just in the digital environment.

This can cause movements – albeit barely perceptible but equally relevant – in the complex balance of global power, by concentrating one of the strategic components of global critical infrastructure in the hands of the technological giants.

All this in the absence of a global governance mechanism to address this issue, as the International Convention for the Protection of Submarine Cables of 1884 is more than obsolete. As is the case for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – in which the above-mentioned Convention is currently framed – the challenges are more than obvious, with the obvious conclusion about the urgent need for the international community for an answer to this pressing question.

A response that should not only be at the global level, but also at the regional level, for example at the level of the European Union, especially if digital sovereignty is to be guaranteed, an essential element in the present present and even more so in the future.

Evidence of this is that in recent weeks there have been several incidents involving submarine cables both on the British, French and Spanish coasts that several analysts have linked to the war in Ukraine.

In the case of the United Kingdom, there were breaks in the cables connecting Britain to the Shetland and Faroe Islands, while in France two of the main cables coming ashore via the Marseille submarine cable junction were also cut. Even if some of these cases have been proven to be the result of accidental accidents, in others there is still doubt as to what really happened.

Some experts have pointed to Russia and recalling the naval maneuvers that this country carried out just before Ukraine’s invasion of Ireland’s territorial waters, right in one of the areas with the highest concentration of intercontinental cables in the world.

In this regard, it is perhaps not surprising that the Spanish Navy has recently reported that it is monitoring the activity of Russian ships near the main cables lying in sovereign Spanish waters, indicating that more than three possible prospecting actions have been carried out in recent months. by ships flying the Russian flag had been discovered and deterred. Another proof of the growing value of these infrastructures which, although almost invisible, are strategic.

Manuel Manuelles is Associate Professor of International Relations, Blanquerna/University Ramon Llull, Barcelona

© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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