“The cloud” exists deep under the sea. Although you might first think of satellites and cell towers, before the data reaches your phone or router, it often travels beneath oceans: through a massive, global network of undersea fibre optic cables.
This global submarine cable network is growing, bringing the opportunity of high speed internet to more people, including in remote island nations. But who is building this network?
This network of submarine cables transports petabytes of information around the world on a daily basis, in a manner that is invisible to most users — a huge technical feat. Historically, these submarine cables have been built by telecom carriers, who form consortia to finance the construction of a cable. In the 1990s, undersea cables began to attract investment from private companies, who saw the potential to make a profit by selling capacity to telecom companies and private companies alike.
Today, the investment landscape in undersea cables is shifting yet again. Because they now make up the greater part of undersea cable traffic, internet companies are beginning to finance and construct their own undersea cables. In fact, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft owned or leased more than half of the undersea bandwidth in 2018. Currently, Google alone owns six active submarine cables, and plans to have eight more ready within two years.
A timeline of undersea cables around the world
An equally significant driver of investment in undersea cables today are concerns regarding cybersecurity. The Snowden revelations in 2014 exposed the extent of government surveillance of internet infrastructure, including fibre optic cables. Given that 95 percent of the internet’s data and voice traffic travels between continents underwater, the corporate and political powers that influence and control the infrastructure can have significant global social and security implications. In this context, physical ownership of undersea infrastructure to mitigate the risk of surveillance is emerging as an investment motivation.
Still, the rapid expansion of the submarine cable network in the last decade was largely fueled by the meteoric increase in demand for internet services. The rapid uptake of cloud computing, connected devices, streaming and countless other services many of us now take for granted — combined with users’ expectation that it all works quickly and smoothly — put major pressure on service providers.
For videos to play and links to open milliseconds after a click, with minimal latency, content needs to be cached as close as possible to users. So companies like Facebook and Google began to build global networks of data centers. To connect those data centers, they not only invest in existing cables, but also increasingly build their own cables to ensure that their services are quickly and readily available anywhere in the world.
It’s a new development for online platforms to also be the owners (or co-owners) of the delivery infrastructure. At a time when there is already significant concern about the consolidation of power by the biggest technology companies in multiple realms, and telcos are merging with traditional media companies, it raises questions about who (literally) controls the internet, and how we wish to see it develop in the future. When the same companies own the online platforms and the infrastructure to access them, we have to consider whether the incentives and agreements for sharing access to cables thus far will still make sense.
With so many aspects of our societies and economies relying on the internet — and the undersea cables that power it — we can and should demand that the public has a say in the regulation of this critical infrastructure.