Add undersea cables to the growing list of flashpoints between the United States and China.
Until recently, American companies dominated this critical area of communications infrastructure — all 900,000 miles of them, snaking across ocean floors, serving as the internet’s circulatory system, transporting the world’s data, communications, financial transactions, and even military and diplomatic traffic.
China has now entered the business, with a $500 million program to link communications between Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Republican congressman Brian Mast of Florida characterized the threat earlier this year like so: “Chinese companies, heavily subsidized of course by the communist government, have started investing in owning and supplying subsea cables. Think about things like voice communications, data, the internet, trillions of daily international financial transactions, things that you don’t want China getting ahold of.”
Nicole Starosielski, a professor of media culture and communication at New York University, and author of the book The Undersea Network, told listeners of the radio program On Point that more than 99 percent of international internet traffic is carried via fiber-optic undersea cables running along the sea floors. “They’re integral to global communications,” she said. “We don’t have the internet as we know it today without them.”
As of early 2023, there are more than 550 active and planned undersea cables, and that total changes as new cables enter service and older cables are decommissioned.
Modern undersea cable use fiber-optic technology, as lasers on one end fire at extremely rapid rates down thin glass fibers to receptors at the other end of the cable, according to TeleGeography, a telecommunications market research company. The glass fibers are wrapped in layers of plastic (and sometimes steel wire) to protect them from the elements. For most of its journey across the ocean, a cable is typically about the width of a garden hose, but the filaments that carry light signals are extremely thin — roughly the diameter of a human hair.
The fibers are sheathed in a few layers of insulation and protection. Cables laid nearer to shore use extra layers of armoring for enhanced protection, including burying them under the seabed to keep them from getting damaged. Deep sea cables, by contrast, are laid directly on the ocean floor. Care is taken to ensure cables follow the safest path, avoiding fault lines, fishing zones, anchoring areas and other dangers. To reduce inadvertent damage, the undersea cable industry also spends a lot of time educating marine industries on the location of cables, TeleGeography reports.
Some cables are as short as 80 miles, such as those stretching between Ireland and the United Kingdom, while transcontinental cables such as the Asian-American Gateway, which connects Southeast Asia with the mainland of the United States via Guam and Hawaii, runs about 12,500 miles.
The undersea cable business was valued at $25 billion as of 2021, according to a market research study published by Custom Market Insights, and it is expected to reach $35 billion by 2030.
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn (linkedIn.com/in/mikeconsol) to read his latest postings.