POLITICS OR  PLANNING: Which is Shaping the Network of the Future?

John TibblesBy John Tibbles
January 25, 2021


Just under a year ago at Subnetwork’s World Europe (Forum?) in London I met a long time American colleague recently returned from PTC, I held out my hand to shake only to be told with a big smile-“Hey John, can’t do that anymore you know because of this business in China.”

That was far from the last comment at the event but no one at the time had the least idea of what was to follow, let alone how it might affect our world . So, having written about how politics and subsea cables had interacted over thirty or more years enough has happened in just one to justify a reprise and so…………….

Before the Pandemic

In my previous article I covered events that over time had highlighted the fact that subsea cables are a serious national and infrastructure asset. As such, interest in them from the political world came and went either in the form of lengthy regulatory soul searching as in days of carrier competition to much more dramatic and attention-grabbing situations like WikiLeaks.  I explored how developments like these had led to some new entrants in the market and the fact that cable route choices were influenced by political and security considerations.

There were some interesting media features to comment on, like the National Interests magazine’s ‘Forget Nuclear Weapons, Cutting Undersea Cables could Decisively end a War’ and CNNs article about cable vulnerability which commented ‘ Underwater cables are the invisible force driving the modern internet, with many in recent years funded by internet giants such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon. They carry almost all of our communications and yet in a world of wireless networking and smartphones we are barely aware they that exist’.

This growing awareness reached its peak in what became the Huawei issue, with the United States taking direct and aggressive steps to ensure no Huawei cables would land in America, a view that percolated to other parts of the world and ended with Huawei’s effective withdrawal from the subsea market.

Surely that was enough?

Enter Covid-19

Covid-19 brought our modern world, air travel and travel in general being the best examples, to a dead stop. Overnight governments closed borders, shut airports, brought in emergency regulations, enforced martial law, shut schools, colleges and entertainment venues. In fact in the West they had more effect on day to day life than forty years of a supposed communist threat to ‘our way of life’.

But being the ingenious creatures we are, when we are not doing stupid things to the planet or our fellows, humankind rapidly began to find a way around these problems and the enabler was the internet.   And of course; what is essential to the global internet?  Well, that would be submarine cables.

We turned to Zoom, Skype etc. to replace air travel or even our daily commute, to Amazon and online stores for our shopping needs and to Netflix and Prime for our leisure. Demand for interconnecting global capacity soared. In past times we could not have coped but this time we did and that was largely down to luck.

That’s not to minimise the efforts of the relevant people but without the capacity to work with little could be done. And as it happened many new systems designed for 15 years growth had just become operational, unprecedented amounts of available capacity to soak up the sudden and extraordinary increase in demand. Thus far we have largely got through what must be one of the greatest technology substitutions in man’s evolution. It’s almost like all the horses died in 1886 and were replaced overnight by 21st century levels of motor vehicle production.

And so once again subsea cables make an appearance on the world stage as crucial not just to business but to mankind in general; politicians do tend to notice things like that.

To continue reading the rest of this article, please read it in Issue 116 of the SubTel Forum Magazine on page 38 or on our archive site here.