ARCTIC CABLES: Digital Sovereignty and Geopolitics


ALEXANDRA MIDDLETON, Postdoctoral Researcher

BJØRN RØNNING, an independent telecom professional

This article by Alexandra Middleton and Bjørn Rønning provides a comprehensive overview of the current state and strategic importance of Arctic subsea cables in the context of digital sovereignty and geopolitics. The significance of these cables extends beyond mere infrastructure; they are emblematic of geopolitical power dynamics, data security, and the global internet's resilience. Here's a summary of the key points covered:

  • Strategic Importance of Subsea Cables: More than 99% of international data traffic is transmitted through submarine cables, highlighting their crucial role in global communications and internet connectivity. These cables are not just infrastructure but also represent a nation's ability to control, secure, and potentially surveil data flows.
  • Security Concerns and Geopolitical Implications: The damage to a fiber cable connecting the Svalbard archipelago to mainland Norway in January 2022 underscored the vulnerabilities of these critical infrastructures. Although there was no direct evidence of intentional sabotage, the incident raised concerns about the security of undersea cables, particularly in strategic areas like the Arctic.
  • NATO's Response: Recognizing the strategic importance of protecting undersea infrastructure, NATO established the Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell at its headquarters in February 2023. Further steps were taken at the Vilnius Summit in July 2023, with the creation of the Maritime Centre for the Security of Critical Underwater Infrastructure within NATO's Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM).
  • Arctic Cables for Connectivity and Sovereignty: The article highlights past and present efforts to deploy subsea cables in the Arctic, aimed at enhancing connectivity and asserting digital sovereignty. Notable projects include the Russian-owned ROTACS initiative and the US-based Quintillion's exploration of a Trans-Arctic route.
  • European Union's Polar Connect Initiative: In 2023, Europe made significant strides with the Polar Connect Initiative, seeking to establish secure and resilient Arctic subsea cables to enhance connectivity with Asia and North America. This initiative includes the FAR NORTH FIBER and POLAR-CONNECT systems, with aims to reduce latency and increase connectivity resilience.
  • USA's Engagement: Quintillion's efforts in the Arctic represent the US's private sector engagement in enhancing Arctic connectivity. Despite shifts in focus, such initiatives contribute to the broader strategic landscape of Arctic subsea cable deployment.

The article concludes that the development of Arctic cables is driven by considerations of digital sovereignty, critical infrastructure protection, and geopolitical concerns. The initiatives by NATO, the EU, and private sector players like Quintillion and NORDU net reflect a growing recognition of the strategic importance of Arctic subsea cables in the global digital infrastructure landscape.

To read the complete article, check out Issue 134 of the Sub Tel Forum Magazine here


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