Maritime cables: New routes for data

11 Apr 2019 13:15h - 14:00h

Event report


The session was organised by the School of Economic Warfare and presented by Mr Aymene Zermane, PhD, School of Economic Warfare. Zermane explained that maritime cables are mostly located at the bottom of the sea and comprise a global network of 1.2 million km enabling remote connection between countries. He mentioned that all continents are linked through submarine cables, with the exception of Antarctica. He went on to introduce the major actors in the sector such as Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks, Fujitsu, and Huawei Marine Networks.

Zermane explained that Tier 1 Companies are the main Internet backbone providers. He further noted that some of these also act as Tier 3 providers which are the local Internet Service Providers (ISPs). He highlighted the joint effort of Facebook and Microsoft to build their own submarine cable, which will directly connect San Francisco and Bilbao (Spain). Zermane explained that these private projects by the most important tech companies are driven by the promise of increased cloud computing, with the cables providing exclusive access to data.

He also expanded on the geopolitical implications of submarine cables. He mentioned that after the Snowden revelations in 2013, the BRICS states discussed building an infrastructure with their own cables to protect their communications from US interference. However the project, which had already been approved and was expected to consist of 34 000 km of cabling between Fortaleza (Brazil) and Vladivostok (Russia), faced many difficulties, and there has been no new information about it since 2013.

Zermane also mentioned the development of Alcatel’s South Atlantic Express (SAEX) initiative which should be operational by 2020. The reason for this cable is that existing cable links between the Suez canal into the Mediterranean are exposed to many risks, such as piracy or accidental damage from shipping. Additionally, the cables are exposed to seismic movement in the Mediterranean region, which risks damaging the cables.

The speaker also explained that developments in the area of maritime cables have implications on a new form of sovereignty. He spoke about the two diverging notions between data and cyber sovereignty and noted that the concept which has been picked up most, especially by state actors, is that of data sovereignty. The argument most often invoked in relationship to data sovereignty is that countries should be able to access relevant data such as social media, health, or transaction data within their borders. Moreover, Zermane explained that countries such as Russia are arguing for data sovereignty in the event that global connectivity cannot be assured.

Finally, Zermane noted that efforts towards increased sovereignty carry the risk of further fragmentation of the Internet, and a constant fear of espionage. He emphasised that the questions of connectivity, cables and fragmentation is no longer a technical, but a political question.


By Cedric Amon