The Politicization of Subsea Cables: How Our Once Discrete World Now Makes Headlines

John TibblesBy John Tibbles
January 19, 2020

  1. Introduction

For many years, probably since the early days of telegraphs submarine cables have rested quietly out of the view of the media and politicians if not the military minds but that now longer seems to be the case. As I started writing this an appeared on one of my news feeds, a feature from the magazine ‘National Interests’, it’s title ’Forget Nuclear Weapons, Cutting Undersea Cables could Decisively End a War’; so, how did we get to headlines like that?

In the years following World War 1 London lay at the hub of a global network of subsea telegraph cables. Their capacity was laughably small by today’s standards, but they were the nerves of Empire keeping it in touch with the mother country. At times, perhaps more importantly, they allowed the Royal Navy to connect the Admiralty with its global bases. However, in the late 1920s Sr. Marconi’s radio systems allowed wireless telegraphy with much less capital intensive than cables. The new technology rapidly made deep inroads into the cable companies’ profits and threatened their survival.

Radio links cannot be kept secure from interception and the British Government decided that it must, intercede and merge the wireless and cable companies into one. This allowed cheaper commercial services via radio but provided for the continuation of the expensive but secure cable links. The merger was completed in 1934 and the new company was named Cable and Wireless. Thirty-five years later I started work for them and thought it a good place to start this article.

  1. Some Relevant History

(A quiet time for cables the 1950s to 1990.)

Does this map look familiar?

Historical Telegraph Cable Map

If you look quickly this could be a map of today’s global subsea cable network, the paths and nodes similar to modern systems but with a capacity beyond the imagination of the engineers and developers in Britain and other countries with a strong maritime history.

In fact the map showed the picture in 1901 but technically things changed little until after WW2 ended and In the early 1950s the first coaxial transoceanic coaxial cables were laid, they were a new innovation for they could carry voice calls, only about 80 at one time and the only political interest was through the state monopolies that controlled them.

To continue reading the rest of this article, please read it in Issue 110 of the SubTel Forum magazine here on page 40.