Map of the 1858 transatlantic cable route. Source: Wikipedia. Statement by Manuel Manonelles (Barcelona)Wednesday 9 November 2022Inter Press Service
BARCELONA, Nov 09 (IPS) – The recent incidents of sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline in the depths of the Baltic Sea, whose authorship still raises doubts today, have reminded us that some of the key infrastructures that determine geopolitics and our daily Living, are mostly located deep under the sea.
One of these strategic infrastructures, whose importance is inversely proportional to its public perception, also lies in the underwater world. It’s about submarine cables, mostly fiber optic, through which more than 95% of Internet traffic circulates. A dense and growing web of undersea cables connecting the world and through which circulates the lifeblood of the new economy, data.
The history of submarine cables is not new. Around 1850 the first submarine cables were laid and in 1858 the first 4,000 km long intercontinental cable was put into operation, connecting Ireland with Newfoundland (Canada).
It was a telegraph cable back then, and although the first telegram – sent from Queen Victoria to then-US President James Buchanan – took seventeen hours to travel from one point to the next, it was considered a technological feat. From here the network grew inexorably and communication in the world changed.
Telephone cables followed, and in 1956 the first intercontinental telephone cable was commissioned, which in turn connected Europe and America with thirty-six telephone lines that would soon become insufficient. Thirty years later, the first fiber optic cable – replacing copper – became operational in 1988, and in recent decades the undersea cable network has grown dramatically, driven by the exponential growth in demand generated by the new digital economy and society.
It is therefore surprising that such an important and relevant infrastructure goes so unnoticed, considering that it is the backbone of a society increasingly dependent on its digital dimension. Experts call this the “paradox of invisibility”.
Because, in turn, more than 95% of what we see every day on our phones, computers, tablets and social networks, what we upload or download from our clouds or watch via platforms – and thus millions of people, institutions and companies around the world World – go through this undersea cable system.
The financial transactions transmitted by this network are approximately $10 trillion per day; and the global fiber optic submarine cable market was worth around $13.3 billion per year in 2020 and is expected to reach $30.8 billion in 2026, with a CAGR of 14%.
A system that, however, suffers from a significant governance deficit while undergoing significant changes in its configuration and, above all, in the nature of its operators and owners. In addition, the main operators of these networks have traditionally been the telecommunications companies or, more importantly, consortiums of several companies in the sector.
Many of these companies were owned or closely related to the governments of their home countries – and were therefore linked in one way or another to some sort of national or regional legislation – and they created a model that was centered on the interests and interests of the interconnectivity of its customers.
In recent years, however, the growing need for hyper-connectivity from the major digital conglomerates (Google, Meta/Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) and their cloud computing provider data centers has caused them to move away from simple consumers of submarine cabling to the main users (currently 66% of the capacity of the entire current network is used). What’s more, they have moved from users to the new dominant promoters of this type of infrastructure, leading to an amplification of their almost omnipotent power, and not only in the digital environment.
This can create – albeit imperceptible but equally relevant – movements in the complex global balance of power by concentrating one of the strategic components of the global critical infrastructure in the hands of the technological giants.
All of this without a global governance mechanism to deal with the issue, as the 1884 International Convention for the Protection of Submarine Cables is more than outdated. As is the case with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – which currently enshrines the aforementioned Convention – the challenges of which are more than apparent, with the apparent conclusion that something urgently needs to be done by the international community to provide an answer to this pressing question .
A response that must be made not only at global level but also at regional level, for example at European Union level, especially if digital sovereignty is to be guaranteed, an essential element in the current present and even more so in the future.
Evidence of this is that there have been several submarine cable-related incidents on both the British, French and Spanish coasts in recent weeks, which several analysts have linked to the Ukraine war.
In the case of the UK, the cables linking Britain to Shetland and the Faroe Islands were cut, while in France two of the main cables running through the Marseille submarine cable hub were also cut. While some of these cases have been proven to be the result of random accidents, in others there are still doubts as to what really happened.
Some experts have pointed to Russia, recalling the naval maneuvers that this country conducted just before invading Ukraine off Ireland’s territorial waters, precisely in one of the areas with the world’s highest concentration of intercontinental cables.
In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the Spanish Navy has recently reported that it is monitoring the activities of Russian ships near the main cables lying in Spanish sovereign waters, indicating that more than three possible Prospecting operations were carried out by flying ships, the Russian flag had been spotted and deterred. Another proof of the growing value of these infrastructures, which, although almost invisible, have strategic importance.
Manuel Manonelles 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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