The Subsea Space Race for Cable Sovereignty
Anna Diljá Sigurðardóttir
How and where are fibreglass subsea cables produced?
The application of high purity quartz sand has expanded at an impressive rate over the past two to three decades. The high purity quartz is extensively used for a wide range of applications, but the key factors that are driving this market are including the growing demand in electronics, fibre optics and solar industries. All of them are looking after its excellent characteristics, such as transmissivity to light, durability and purity. Due to this, the global demand is escalating and in the current scenario, sourcing resources and causing environmental concerns.
The submarine cables, which are buried 3 to 10 m deep in the ocean floor, are thick as garden hoses. They consist of hair-like glass fibres that are wrapped in a steel tube and covered by strands of steel wire to provide strength, then a copper-based conductor is placed around to carry electrical power and for extra protection, an insulating case of polyethylene forms the outer shell. For shallower waters, various layers of steel wire armour are applied to protect from damage. But all the magic happens in the optical fibres that are produced in a 40 meter tall fibre tower. The drawing process of the fibres begins with a 1-meter wide glass cylinder made from high purity quartz to produce a fused silica preform, which becomes the internal structure of an optical fibre. The preform is brought up to the drawing tower and slowly reaches a temperature of 2100 degrees. It starts with a drop, and with gravity, it pulls the red hot strands downwards. The formerly thick glass cylinder will become around 800 kilometres long at the end of the drawing process. It will have become a fibre, and this thin glass has become stronger than stainless steel of the same thickness when pulled along its length.
What is the role of private companies for the future of the subsea cable landscape?
Today, submarine cables connect all the continents, except for the Arctic and Antarctica. Every physical location of internet infrastructure has become a strategic location for its owner. Historically, cables are owned by groups of private companies, mostly telecommunication providers. That changed in 2016, with the start of a massive submarine cable boom, and this time, the buyers were corporations like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon. As such, they transformed the subsea cable market.
They are no longer reliant on global network operators to provide capacity and are simply building the necessary infrastructure themselves. Giving them greater control over assets, reducing their costs, improving network resilience and latency, and enabling them to compete more aggressively in the global marketplace. This drastic change has not occurred over decades but in just the last few years. These companies are constantly looking for shorter routes to connect the East to the West. Going through the Arctic would create the shortest direct route from Asia to mainland Europe, saving 91 ms compared to the currently used traditional route. It is the new frontier of unknown opportunities and threats. For the countries that border the Arctic—Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States—an ice-free Arctic Ocean means new economic opportunities. The race to secure sovereignty over the subsea cable landscape opens up as borders begin to shift.
Is the soil that these cables are laid upon a ground for conflict?
The International Law of the Sea, as codified in UNCLOS, recognises the right of all states to lay submarine cables on the seabed not only of the high seas but also beyond the outer limits of the continental shelf. In such cases, the coastal states, while lacking powers to prevent the laying of cables by other states, nevertheless, have the right to adopt reasonable measures to safeguard the exploration and protection of its own natural resources, and indeed to approve the laying of the cable. Moreover, coastal states have the right to establish the conditions for cables entering its territory or territorial sea.
Another arising conflict is that, while there is a motivation to recover cables, there are still thousands of kilometres of old cables, especially in deeper waters which have been abandoned by their owners. The most frequently discussed and debated are the geopolitical chokepoints in this system. For example, if you look at a map of the undersea cable system, it’s easy to locate where cable routes funnel through narrow geographic zones. These include the Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, the Strait of Luzon, between Taiwan and the Philippines, and the crossing of Egypt and the Red Sea. At each of these points, cable traffic is vulnerable, with political and geographical pressure including national, territorial, and oceanic politics that make it difficult to route elsewhere.
While geopolitical chokepoints appear because cables are unable to route elsewhere, due to the contours of land and water, the composition of the seafloor, or political tensions, the cables are often forced along a narrow path, where there is an increased threat of anchors, subsea movements, and nations and companies that control the space. In the present day of global systems, the cables run the global finance, transportation, supply chains, and other networks of international exchange. That means that all of them rely on the undersea cable network for international communications.