Can We Become Masters of Our Own Destiny Given Today’s Challenging Geopolitical Landscape? (Or at Least, First Mates?)

By Elaine Stafford, DRG Undersea Consulting
December 22, 2020

PTC’21 will be here soon: 17-20 January 2021. There’s little doubt that those of us who make it a point to attend the annual Subcable Workshop will miss meeting friends, customers, suppliers, and partners face-to-face, as well as the mentally renewing Hawaiian interlude. It is impossible to replace the experience of being in Hawaii, but the insights delivered each year by the Subcable Workshop promise to be better than ever in 2021 – in part, because 2020 has been memorable in so many ways. The upcoming Subcable Workshop will offer an opportunity for reflection both backward and forward, as together we debate not only how things might change (hopefully for the better) in the coming year, but also lessons learned which may motivate us collectively to take initiative, including perhaps with policy makers, to potentially drive better outcomes for our industry and the global network.

PTC’21’s Subcable Workshop will once again be sponsored by The SubOptic Association. It will be all-virtual, with sessions split over Monday and Tuesday, at a time which we hope will enable many colleagues throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas to participate. Unfortunately, those of you in Oceania will likely need several cups of coffee to stay awake to listen in real-time. The event will be recorded so that PTC’21 registrants who are unable to participate “live” can avoid missing out.

This year’s Subcable Workshop program, as always, will start with an around-the-world update on cable progress and plans, region by region. The session will be chaired by Sean Bergin of APTelecom and will feature a handful of respected industry leaders from across the globe, each of whom will reflect on the increasingly crowded world cable map and what is driving a continued upswing in new cable projects. By my tally, the Atlantic still takes the #1 position, having seen Express, AEC-1, MAREA, Havfrue, and soon Dunant, Amitie, and others across the northern Atlantic since that route’s renewal saw its first RFPA after a 15-year lull. That’s the start of a trend approaching one new cable per year for the last several years – a record; several are currently in various stages of construction. And while the Asia-Pacific region has faced some real challenges in 2020, there are lots of plans there for new cables, too. Not to mention the seemingly unceasing expansion of cables to Australia and Latin America, plus large new projects to Africa now formally announced and underway. Around the corner, there’s also the promise of multiple new cables on the Eurasia route. Our experts will also talk about the smaller, new regional connections that are not quite evolving at the same accelerating pace. This growth of new submarine cable projects is expected to continue as the global market data demand continues, in part due to COVID-19, which has pushed many enterprises to accelerate cloud adoption plans.

The Subcable Workshop’s Monday session (18 January) will also launch our discussion of some of the more challenging issues our industry faces today with a session on Marine Data Sovereignty and its impact on the subsea cable industry. We’ll start with EllaLink and GEOLab, whose presentation will focus on how they intend to use submarine cables as a SMART facility that supports ocean observing research, while at the same time needing to address marine data sovereignty issues given their network’s Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) capability. This will also look at the regulatory and legal implications which go along with these new capabilities. A panel of experts will follow, led by Tony Mosley of OSI, who will share their views, more broadly, on how the increasing regulatory concerns regarding marine data sovereignty can effectively be balanced with broader global needs to better understand the ocean environment. In addition to this, science can be helped by collecting data from subsea networks for both research and disaster prevention. Questions that will be discussed:

  • Who owns the data?
  • What can and will be shared?
  • How does it fit in with UNCLOS treaty principles?
  • How do the answers to these questions differ between data collected in national waters versus international waters?

Tuesday’s Subcable Workshop sessions (19 January) will pick up on the regulatory theme, with a focus on the impact of geopolitics on the subsea cable – both from a supply and global cable network standpoint. We’ll start this session with a series of presentations to provide perspective on today’s challenges and opportunities.

  • We’ll begin with Kent Bressie providing a history lesson on geopolitical influence on the subsea cable market around the globe. While many of us feel the impact of U.S.-China tensions today, politics and policy have always played a role in our industry – sometimes in ways that are obviously constructive, and whereas other times, opinions on the benefits may differ. Our industry has never been sheltered from geopolitical influence and likely never will. We’ve managed through it before and will again, but can we do it more proactively and thoughtfully?
  • Our second tutorial, provided by Mike Constable, will summarize the key security-related concerns associated with cable construction and operation.

With this backdrop, I will moderate our expert panel, which will include the speakers above, plus Andy Lipman, Russ Matulich, and Mr. Esko Aho (Chairman of Cinia Oy and former Prime Minister of Finland). Together, we’ll discuss the geopolitical forces at play today in our undersea cable market, what they mean to the global network of the future, what it means to construction of new cables, and how our industry might help steer the course of our future in a constructive manner. It’s easy to focus solely on the influence of U.S.-China relationships, where the U.S. administration’s “Clean Cable” initiatives announced in August 2020 are leaving some big projects now feeling the immediate-term challenges resulting from these policies, but the long-term impacts from such policies may conceivably have some compensating upside benefits. Today’s transpacific project difficulties are especially challenging because they were not anticipated; had we known today’s policies were on the horizon several years ago, cable construction plans would most likely have adapted accordingly at a time when change would have been simpler. As Kent Bressie has often said, “If the regulatory requirements were predictable, life would be a lot easier.” And if there’s one thing we can say for sure, policies are rarely “forever,” as evidenced by changes on the horizon in the Middle East – which appear to be moving in a more positive direction than ever before. Will a transpacific cable follow transatlantic EllaLink to create transoceanic connections that don’t involve the U.S. in order to materialize? What might we see ahead as the arctic routes open to connect Eurasia through previously frozen, uncharted, and now nationally disputed waters? And how, if geopolitical issues force divergence of networks, will the Internet connect us all?

These are obviously sensitive topics and will be challenging to discuss. We hope to dig below the surface with the goal of shedding light on the issues and how together, we might help policy makers navigate a path forward. For sure, that’s a goal that may be too much for any one of our companies to realize, even if we work together. But cooperative, industry dialogue to help regulators understand our mission to both connect the unconnected and better connect those already connected via our critical undersea global infrastructure is well worthwhile. Finding the answers will certainly not come from a PTC panel, but rather may be achieved in a more secure, discrete multi-lateral setting with policy makers and regulators. But maybe our PTC Subcable Workshop discussion might plant some insightful seeds (dare I suggest even wisdom?), which regulators might use to help guide them toward defining a global solution. One could hope that we have the power to play a small role in determining our own destiny.

TeleGeography will be presenting its usual workshop virtually this year.

As with last year, we’ll also have a “poster” room as part of the PTC Subcable Workshop, where various speakers will have pre-recorded videos on topical events for the industry, which you can view at your leisure. There will be presentations on SLTE transmission technologies, integrated subsea and backhaul capacity, to data centers, desktop study methodologies, novel pricing models, as well as updates from some of SubOptic’s Working Groups focusing on open management system (API) interfaces, development of a new SubOptic-sponsored mentorship program, and recently launched research into green cable landing station opportunities.

PTC’s Sunday Subcable Workshop has, for decades, been the January event that was worthy of missing a Sunday morning at Waikiki Beach or a golf course. It promises to be equally valuable in 2021 and we hope all of you will attend. Register now at