By Manuel Manonelles*
The recent incidents of sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline in the depths of the Baltic Sea, the authorship of which still raises doubts today, have reminded us that some of the key infrastructures that condition geopolitics, and our daily lives, are largely located deep under the sea.
One of these strategic infrastructures, the importance of which is inversely proportional to their public awareness, also lies in the underwater environment. It is about submarine cables, generally of fiber optic, through which more than 95% of internet traffic circulates. A thick and growing network of undersea cables that connect 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 put into operation in 1858, connecting Ireland and Newfoundland (Canada).
It was at that time a telegraph cable, and while the first telegram—sent by Queen Victoria to then US President James Buchanan—took seventeen hours to get from one point to the next, it was considered a technological feat. From here, the network grew unstoppably and communications in the world changed.
Telephone cables followed, and in 1956 the first intercontinental telephone cable was put into operation, again connecting Europe and America with thirty-six telephone lines that would soon be insufficient. Thirty years later, the first fiber optic cable —replacing copper— was activated in 1988 and in recent decades the submarine cable network has dramatically increased, driven by the exponential growth in demand generated by the new digital economy and society.
It is surprising, then, that an infrastructure as critical and relevant as this goes so unnoticed, considering that it is the backbone of a society increasingly dependent on its digital dimension. This is what experts call the “paradox of invisibility”.
Because, again, more than 95% of what we see daily on our mobiles, computers, tablets and social networks, of what we upload or download from our clouds or watch through platforms —and thus millions of people, institutions and companies of all over the world— go through this submarine cable system.
The financial transactions transmitted by this network are approximately of 10 trillion dollars a day; and the global market for fiber optic submarine cables was around 13.3 billion dollars per year in 2020, expected to reach 30.8 billion in 2026, with an annual growth of 14%.
A system, however, 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, traditionally the main operators of these networks were the telecom companies or, above all, consortiums of several companies in this sector.
Many of these companies were owned or had a close relationship with the governments of their country of origin —and, therefore, were linked in one way or another to some sort of national or regional legislation— and they generated a model focused on the interests and the interconnectivity of its clients.
In recent years, however, the growing need for hyper-connectivity of the large digital conglomerates (Google, Meta/Facebook, Microsoft, etc.) and their cloud computing provider data centers has resulted in that these have gone from being simple consumers of submarine cabling to becoming the main users (currently using 66% of the capacity of the entire current network). Even more, from users they have become the new dominant promoters of this type of infrastructure, which results in the reinforcement of their almost omnipotent power, and not only in the digital environment.
This can induce movements – albeit barely perceptible but equally relevant – in the complex balance of global power, by concentrating one of the strategic components of the global critical infrastructure into the hands of the technological giants.
All this with the absence of a global governance mechanism addressing this question, since the International Convention for the Protection of Submarine Cables of 1884 is more than outdated. As it is the case for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) –in which the abovementioned convention is currently framed- whose challenges are more than evident, with the obvious conclusion about the urgent need for the international community to provide an answer to this pressing question.
A response that not only has to be at a global level, but also at a regional one, for example at the level of the European Union, especially if digital sovereignty is to be ensured, a vital element in the current present and even more in the future.
Proof of this is that in the last weeks there have been several incidents in relation to submarine cables both on the British, French and Spanish coasts that several analysts have linked to the Ukraine war.
In the case of the United Kingdom, there were cuts in the cables that connect Great Britain with the Shetland and Faroe Islands, while in France two of the main cables that land through the submarine cable hub that is Marseille were also cut. Even if some of these cases have been proven the result of fortuitous accidents, in others there is still doubt about what really happened.
Some experts have pointed to Russia, recalling the naval maneuvers that this country carried out just before the invasion of Ukraine in front of the territorial waters of Ireland, precisely in one of the areas with the highest concentration of intercontinental cables in the world.
In this context, perhaps it is not surprising that the Spanish Navy has recently reported that it monitors the activity of Russian ships near the main cables that lie in sovereign Spanish waters, indicating that in recent months more than three possible prospecting actions carried by vessels flying the Russian flag had been detected and deterred. One more proof of the growing value of these infrastructures that, despite being almost invisible, are strategic.
*Manuel Manonelles is Associate Professor of International Relations, Blanquerna/University Ramon Llull, Barcelona