Plumbing the depths

Big Tech’s race to con­trol the un­der­wa­ter ca­bles connecting the on­line planet

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page -

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,

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