Plumbing the depths
Big Tech’s race to control the underwater cables connecting the online planet
The Cornish seaside town of Bude might not seem an obvious destination for a Silicon Valley web giant’s next push for world domination. But the holiday resort is on the verge of playing a key role in a vital new piece of the world’s internet infrastructure.
Last month, Google unveiled plans to develop an undersea cable stretching more than 3,000 miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean from New York to the UK, with a branching line to the port city of Bilbao in Spain, so those regions can reap the benefits of high-speed broadband connections.
The cable, named Grace Hopper after the US programmer who helped build the Harvard Mark I computer in the Second World War, promises to bolster the resilience of
‘There is a misperception that radio waves and satellites carry everything. That’s only the last mile’
communications infrastructure at a time when people are increasingly reliant on secure networks at home.
“There is a common misperception that radio waves and satellites carry everything, however that’s only the last mile of connectivity,” says Jayne Stowell, the head of Google’s undersea cables division team. “The real connectivity is fibre optics that’s either underground terrestrially or between continents under the ocean.”
Not content with controlling the software and social networks we use to stay connected, Silicon Valley is ploughing billions of dollars into dominance of the raw wires and cables which form the basic physical plumbing of the global internet.
At stake is the very future of the web itself – and an opportunity to cut out the telecoms giants which have traditionally served as intermediaries between Silicon Valley and the end users of its products.
Google is not the only player in the subsea cable game. With cables responsible for transmitting 98pc of the world’s internet traffic at the speed of light across the sea floor, the likes of
Facebook, Microsoft and others are making a play too.
Google’s newest cable, expected to be completed by 2022, is just the latest in a roster of existing cables managed by the tech giant. Another Google cable, named after physicist Marie Curie, connects Los Angeles to Valparaiso in Chile. Another, called Dunant, connects the US with France. It will be completed this year.
According to Stowell, projects like Grace Hopper help Google’s customers like Lloyds Banking Group, HSBC, Just Eat and even the UK government, prepare “for the future”.
“This is Google’s first private cable to the UK which means we will own 100pc of it and it can be designed and built to our very high standards,” Stowell says.
Facebook, meanwhile, has turned its eyes to Africa. With an internet revolution sweeping across the continent predicted to generate $51bn (£38.9bn) in revenue for telecoms operators by 2025, according to a 2019 report from industry body GSMA, the opportunity to wire up the continent could be a lucrative one.
The social media giant’s 2Africa cable, officially announced in May, will almost match the Earth’s entire circumference at 23,000 miles, and is expected to be ready for use by 2024 with support from Vodafone, Orange, Telecom Egypt and MTN Group, a South African telecoms firm.
Facebook has also worked closely with Microsoft on a cable connecting Virginia Beach on America’s east coast to Bilbao with the capacity to carry 160 terabits of data per second – the same amount of data used to stream 71m high definition videos simultaneously.
Figures from industry analyst TeleGeography indicate that there were approximately 406 undersea cables as of early 2020.
Putting cables together is complicated. A detailed survey of the ocean must be made over a period of months so that the undersea environment is properly understood.
Optic wires are held together by a mesh, copper welding and an outer layer of plastic no bigger than a garden hose that protects the connections.
“Closer to shore we try to bury the cable a couple of metres beneath the surface so it’s protected against ship anchors or fishing trawlers,” Stowell explains. Typically, power stations at either end of a cable provide the initial strength for a signal. But so-called “amplifiers” are needed to give the signals a boost at 62-mile intervals.
The scramble to control these internet pipelines has sparked security concerns, amid rising tensions between China and the US.
In June, a committee known as Team Telecom urged US government officials not to approve an 8,000-mile cable linking the US to Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines over fears that it could allow China to steal data.
Fears over the Pacific Light Cable Network, backed by both Facebook and Google, have emerged as a result of investment from a Hong Kongbased subsidiary of Dr Peng Media Group, a telecoms provider in mainland China. which are finding themselves in direct confrontation with China.
Defence experts have expressed concerns that any cable damage, whether intentional or accidental, could cause internet blackouts.
According to Stowell, Google has a number of measures in place to ensure the security of personal data transmitted through cables. “There’s a lot of physical protection that comes into it before you even look at anything beyond the physical level,” she says. Moreover, Google and others encrypt all data in transit from continent to continent.
Despite this protection of data, some industry insiders have been growing quietly concerned that the backbone of the world’s internet access could soon be largely owned by a small handful of technology giants.
The companies themselves are keen to extol the benefits of their investments of billions In the technology, but the continued development of privately owned internet cables risks becoming the centrepiece of a long-running privacy debate in the future.
‘Routing undersea cables through Hong Kong would provide China with a strategic opportunity’
With officials in Washington already clamping down on Chinese involvement in US technology, whether through the role of Chinese telecoms business Huawei in 5G networks or TikTok’s place on its citizens’ smartphones, the involvement of a Chinese company in a subsea cable project was unlikely to go unnoticed.
“Routing undersea cables through Hong Kong would provide the People’s Republic of China with a strategic opportunity to collect the private information of our citizens and sensitive commercial data,” Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, said earlier this year.
It is not the first time subsea cables have posed concerns. Huawei, which has borne the brunt of US pressure amid allegations of espionage that it has repeatedly denied, has seen its involvement in cables come under scrutiny. So much so, that the firm offloaded its 51pc stake in its marine division last year.
A 3,700-mile cable known as the South Atlantic Inter Link Project, which stretches from Cameroon beach Kribi to Fortaleza in Brazil, involves investment from China Unicom, a Chinese state-owned firm. That increasing numbers of these companies are getting their hands on critical infrastructure has set off alarm bells among Western governments,