The Trade War for Undersea Fiber

A recent article by Joe Brock for Reuters describes a new geopolitical battle over undersea fibers. There are about 400 undersea fiber routes that cross oceans and that connect the world with fiber. This is a huge business, and about 95% of all international broadband traffic passes through the undersea fibers.

There has always been some concern about undersea fibers. Countries fear that sabotage of the fibers connected to their shores could result in being isolated from the Internet. For example, there were several undersea fiber cuts in recent years that isolated Taiwan. These cuts were blamed on fishing boats and not on China, but the cuts highlight a vulnerability in the networks that drive international commerce.

I’ve also read a few other articles that claim that undersea fibers are vulnerable to eavesdropping and spying and that countries with sophisticated technology could be listening in on the traffic that crosses the seas.

The article focuses on a recent trade battle between China and the West over laying a new fiber route that is planned for 2025 construction that would go from France to Singapore and connect to twenty countries along the way. The cable route is known as the South East Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 6, or SeaMeWe-6 route, for short.

The article describes the complicated consortiums that fund undersea fiber routes. This particular route included more than a dozen investors, which are mostly large companies that have to transport huge amounts of international data traffic. The partners on this project included companies like Microsoft, the EU’s Orange, and India’s Bharti Airtel along with China Telecom, China Mobile and China Unicom.

It initially looked like the technology award for the electronics and construction was going to go to HMN Technologies Co Ltd. for around $500 million. This is a Chinese company that was originally created by Huawei, but which was spun off as a standalone company. The primary competitor bidding for the  route was SubCom LLC, an American company.

Things quickly got complicated since the US and China are now embroiled in a trade war that covers a huge range of industries, including undersea fibers. After the deal was awarded to the Chinese firm, the US began warning the investors about the espionage risk of dealing with Chinese electronics vendors. The US went so far as to threaten a boycott against HMN Technologies. The various investors were split on the choice of technology vendor, but eventually agreed to spend $100 million more to use the American company.

It’s almost impossible to stress how much of the world economy is reliant on communications through bandwidth. I find it dismaying to see basic infrastructure becoming enmeshed in international politics. The wrangling over this one fiber route is not going to be the end game but is more like the beginning of a trade war that will add cost to international communications.

This is an new escalation in the trade war that has seen the US government ban Huawei and other Chinese telecom electronics from the country. I haven’t the slightest idea about the real risk of international spying through these fibers, and I suspect there are not a lot of folks who truly understand it. I might be cynical, but it stands to reason if there is spying on this kind of traffic by the Chinese, that there Is likely also spying by the West. Microsoft and Orange argued that the threat of data security was not big enough to justify spending more to switch to the American fiber company. But in the end, the pressure from the American government won, and the more expensive vendor was chosen.

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