Submarine cable power struggle in the deep sea

Fiber optic cables in the world’s oceans ensure that we can access data from servers around the globe in milliseconds, make video calls with our loved ones on other continents, and even perform operations remotely. The availability of these submarine cables seems self-evident. But it is not. Europe is in danger of becoming dependent.

In November 2020, the time had come: the German Internet hub De-CIX reported a new record in data transmission. For the first time, more than ten terabits per second were passed through the node. As De-CIX calculates, this corresponds to 2.2 million videos in HD quality or 2.2 billion typewriter pages. The record is mainly due to the elections in the USA. They sparked a huge interest among Internet users Germany and Europe, video streams from the states made the lines glow.

Table of contents of the article

  • 1 Up to 400 million euros per submarine cable
  • 2 Submarine cables open up new markets
  • 3 China also mixes in the submarine cables
  • 4 Trade war also under water
  • 5 Europe: Change of strategy necessary
    • 5.1 Related posts

Up to 400 million euros per submarine cable

This enormous flow of data is made possible by garden hose-thick fiber optic cables laid across the Atlantic. And not only across the Atlantic: there are more than 500 such systems worldwide. 95 Percent of international traffic passes through the seas. The total length of all submarine cables extends more than 30 times around the equator. They connect not only Europe with the USA, but also Africa with Asia or Japan with the American west coast.  A handful of special ships, equipped with state-of-the-art sensor technology, take over the laying. You can locate any obstacles in the deep sea and know almost exactly how much cable is needed.

But the laying of sea cables is expensive: between 300 and 400 million euros costs such a connection. Which is why more and more telecommunications companies are withdrawing from this business. In their place are Internet companies such as Amazon. Microsoft or Google. Their coffers are full, and they can easily afford the high investment costs. Their motivation, however, is somewhat different from that of telecommunications companies: they do not earn money from selling transmission capacities, but from the transmitted services. And they want to be able to offer this in all corners of the world in the future – not least in Africa.

Submarine cables open up new markets

While in this country, as in the USA, the fast Internet seems to be a matter of course, on the African continent around two thirds of the population still have to do without the network of networks. Worldwide, it is still just under half. “2Africa” should help to change that. According to the plans, the new submarine cable will connect 23 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe and meander around the entire African continent.  The project involves, among others, Facebook, the African telecommunications provider Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN), Orange from France, the British Vodafone group and China Mobile.

Das Facebook-Projekt „2 Africa" führt ein Unterseekabel um den gesamten afrikanischen Kontinent.The Facebook project “2 Africa” runs a submarine cable around the entire African continent. Picture: Facebook

Facebook says in its corporate blog that the new cable has a positive impact on education and health care. But of course it also contributes to the fact that the Internet giant can attract new users in Africa. Daniel Voelsen from the Stiftung Wissenschaft in Berlin warns of an impending dependence. “There are countries on the African continent that have very inadequate and therefore very expensive connections to the global network. In this respect, it is also welcomed by these countries that companies such as Google, Facebook or Microsoft are now coming and saying that we want to invest massively there. However, it is to be feared that these large corporations will also dominate the entire market,“ he said in an article for radio station SWR2.

China also mixes in the submarine cables

Regardless of this, the Internet companies have a great interest in improving not only the reach, but also their own infrastructure. For example, Google has just completed the Dunant project-an undersea cable connecting Virginia Beach on the US east coast with Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez on the French Atlantic coast. The submarine cable is part of a larger project to help connect the Internet giant’s cloud data centers. Also “Grace Hopper” belongs to it. The cable, named after an American Internet pioneer, will connect New York with Bilbao in Spain and the seaside resort of Bude in the UK.

Das Google-Seekabel-Projekt Dunant verbindet die US-Ostküste mit Frankreich.The Google project Dunant, connects the US East coast with France. Image: Dunant Submarine Cable System

The rather inconspicuous submarine cable has long since become a political issue. Because not only Google & Co are striving with all their might into the market, China is also pushing forward. The country itself is rather shielded from the global Internet. The “great firewall” separates it from the Internet as we know it. For the national Internet in the country of the middle have therefore hardly any significance. In Europe and above all in the USA, there is a fear that other motives are at play here – specifically: cyber espionage.

Nevertheless, China is driving the expansion forward. The Chinese are currently implementing the “Peace” project off the French coast of the Middle Sea. The 12,000 km long cable will connect Europe with China via the Horn of Africa and Pakistan. It is, as Peace COO Sun Xiaohua says, part of the Silk Road initiative. The project is primarily intended to support Chinese investors in Africa. For China, however, the cable is also an option for connecting to the European network. “Marseille has carrier-neutral data centres where it is easy to connect and bring the backhaul to key hubs in Europe,” explains Sun.

Trade war also under water

Such projects are a thorn in the side of the American government. As late as 2020, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the “Clean Cable” campaign, which aims to ensure that the submarine cables connecting the US to the global Internet cannot be misused by China to collect data. Unlike in the case of Huawei, however, the Americans cannot simply block the technology here: the Chinese company Hengton, in which also Huawei is piquantly involved, belongs to the largest fiber optic manufacturers in the world and has all the technology in-house.

But at least with the participation of American companies, the US government can intervene, for example with the blockade of the project “Pacific Light Cable Network”. The cable, in which Google, Facebook and the Chinese company Dr. Peng Telecom and Media Group are involved, was originally intended to connect Hong Kong with Los Angeles. Due to China’s efforts to assert its influence in the former British crown colony, it will now only operate between the USA and the Philippines and Taiwan. The already completed connection to Hong Kong should remain dark.

Europe: Change of strategy necessary

So while the USA and China have long recognized the importance of the rather unadorned technology, Europe is not yet ready. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also stressed the importance of Europe’s digital sovereignty. And there is also a commitment within the EU to strengthen submarine cables. But so far this is not much more than lip service.

The lack of competence of Europeans is also reflected in the dwindling know-how of European companies. Among the few who still lay submarine cables is Nokia. But the Finns don’t seem to have much fun in this sector anymore. They want to sell the business.

Perhaps the rest of Europe should take a look at France, where Orange continues to participate in the expansion of the submarine cables despite rather bleak economic prospects. Why? Jean-Luc Vuillemin, Executive Vice President International Networks of the French company, explains: “This is about our national sovereignty. For us as a company, but also for France as a state. We want to be the owner of our infrastructure.”There is actually nothing to add.

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