Lisbon eyes undersea cable investment to bolster EU tech infrastructure

Portugal’s push comes amid growing concerns about EU digital sovereignty and the need to protect critical kit.

By Laurens Cerulus on
December 15, 2020

Portugal is pushing for a pan-European investment plan to roll out a network of undersea cables and upgrade the Continent’s digital infrastructure.

Lisbon plans to present a strategy to shore up and secure Europe’s submarine cable network when it takes over the presidency of the Council of the European Union next month. Portugal has gotten political backing from countries across the bloc for its draft strategy, which would amount to an ambitious, EU-wide industrial plan to increase submarine data connections across Europe and to other continents.

Calling it “the missing pillar” of Europe’s digital strategy, the Portuguese government said in a non-binding document seen by POLITICO that the Commission’s digital policies “largely overlooks the external dimension.”

“Europe’s potential to become a global data manager and digital services provider to the rest of the world risks remaining largely untapped,” it added.

The European Union in the past year presented a series of proposals to turbocharge European companies’ use of data through so-called data spaces. Germany and France have led the charge to develop Europe’s cloud infrastructure via its flagship Gaia-X project to better compete with U.S. giants like Amazon.

But when it comes to undersea connections, it’s often unclear who owns, uses and oversees which lines and how these are subject to control by outside players. World powers like the U.S., China and Russia have clashed over control of these cables. Legacy networks are owned through public and private investments but increasingly, U.S. internet giants Google and Facebook have poured investments into this “backbone” of the internet.

The lack of understanding and control is what’s worrying European lawmakers: “Neither the European Commission, nor us, nor other member states have any idea of how much data flows through these cables,” said a Portuguese diplomat involved in the drafting.

Lisbon is now working to turn its paper into a joint declaration with support from other EU countries, which it wants to unveil in March, officials involved in the work said.

It would call on EU lawmakers to write a “European Data-Gateway Platforms Strategy” that includes: mapping out how data is flowing in and out of Europe through submarine cables; listing cable systems that need replacement in the coming decade; and proposing a strategy to deal with security and dependency risks, including through a “toolbox” document, much like the one on 5G security that sought to decrease Europe’s reliance on foreign suppliers.

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