In the contest between the US and China for dominance over the world’s technology infrastructure, the latest battle is taking place under the Pacific Ocean.
While the US has been upping the pressure on its allies not to include equipment made by Chinese telecom giants like Huawei and ZTE in their 5G systems, Chinese companies have gained a foothold in some of the world’s most essential communications infrastructure – undersea internet cables.
Almost all global data communications flow through cables under the ocean – just one per cent travels by satellite – and Chinese companies have quietly been eroding US, European and Japanese dominance over the backbone of the internet, the undersea cable market. Now, they have trained their sights on connecting one of the most virtually remote parts of the globe, the Pacific Island countries.
Of the 378 cables currently operating worldwide, 23 are under the Pacific. But many of these cables run right by Pacific Island nations on their paths between hubs in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Singapore.
Despite the volume of data flowing under the Pacific Ocean, just half a million of the 11 million people living in Pacific Island countries and Papua New Guinea – less than five per cent – have access to a wired internet connection and only 1.5 million to a mobile connection, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for the Asia Pacific (UNESCAP), compared with 53 per cent of people in Thailand and 60 per cent in the Philippines.
More than US$4 billion worth of cables are to come into service by 2021, continuing a trend in which US$2 billion worth of cables have come online every year since 2016, and six of these cables will connect Pacific Island countries.
The push to connect Pacific Island nations to the latest generation of internet infrastructure has received extra scrutiny from the US and its allies like Australia over the involvement of Chinese tech companies.
While the US has moved to block Huawei from supplying equipment to its allies’ 5G networks, experts say Chinese tech companies could contest the US, EU and Japan’s long-standing dominance over global data traffic through investments in subsea cables.
Chinese tech giants like Huawei have entire divisions devoted to undersea connectivity that have laid thousands of kilometres of cable, and Chinese state telecommunication companies such as China Unicom have access to many of the existing trans-Pacific cables.
But a panel led by the US Department of Justice has held up a nearly complete trans-Pacific cable project over concerns about its Chinese investor, Beijing-based Dr Peng Telecom & Media Group.
The project, the Pacific Light Cable Network, could be the first cable rejected by the panel on the grounds of national security – despite being backed by American tech giants Google and Facebook – setting a precedent for a tougher US stance on Chinese involvement in subsea cables.
Craige Sloots, director of sales at Southern Cross Cable Network, which operates the largest existing sets of trans-Pacific cables, said for any new cable, regulators were likely to scrutinise the ownership of the companies involved and the maker of the project’s equipment.
These two factors, said Sloots, “pragmatically limit some of the providers you can use if you want to connect through the US”.
Experts say that Hong Kong, where the stalled Pacific Light Cable would land, was previously considered a more secure shore landing point than mainland China. But people close to the project say the recent unrest in the city has made this distinction less relevant, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Similar concerns caused a proposed Huawei-backed cable linking Vanuatu with Papua New Guinea to be called off last year after Australia stepped in to fund its own cable instead.
Just months after the government-owned Solomon Islands Submarine Cable Company agreed to the project with Huawei in mid-2017, Canberra put up US$67 million to connect Sydney with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea with cables laid under the Coral Sea by Nokia’s Alcatel Submarine Networks.
Simon Fletcher, CEO of Vanuatu company Interchange, which had been planning another cable in the neighbourhood connecting Vanuatu with the Solomon Islands, said the Coral Sea project undercut the viability for small private businesses to operate in the fledgling market, where services had historically been provided by international organisations like development banks. His company’s cable has been on pause since the announcement of the Coral Sea project, though Fletcher said it would go forward next year.
For years, as Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore became global hubs of high-speed internet data traffic, the cables criss-crossing the ocean floor passed by just off the shores of Pacific Island countries en route between hubs on either side of the ocean.
Tiziana Bonapace, director of UNESCAP’s information technology and disaster risk-reduction division, said the Pacific Islands remain one of the most disconnected areas in the world, where “a vast proportion of the population has no access to the internet”.
Over the past five years, international organisations like UNESCAP, the Asia Development Bank and the World Bank have been pushing for better connectivity in the region. The World Bank’s Pacific Regional Connectivity Programme has invested more than US$90 million into broadband infrastructure for Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Samoa and Tuvalu.
But the business case had never been good, said Bonapace.
“A cable has to travel thousands of kilometres just to connect a population smaller than one of Asia’s megacities,” she said. “As everything we do is somehow connected to the internet, the prospects for the Pacific to become virtually more remote are even higher.”
Even nations which are connected have tenuous infrastructure. In January, Tonga experienced a total internet blackout for two weeks after damage to its single cable. Most parts of the world were linked by multiple cables to prevent this type of outage, said Bruce Howe, professor of ocean and resources engineering at University of Hawaii.
“If these nations want to be part of the international economy, they need reliable communications,” Howe said.
DRAWING NEW LINES
In Papua New Guinea, where mobile internet currently reaches less than a third of the population, a partnership between local telecoms company GoPNG and the Export-Import Bank of China funded the new Huawei-built Kumul Domestic cable system, which came online this year.
The Southern Cross Next system, owned by Spark, Verizon, Singtel Optus and Telstra – the same group of shareholders which operates the massive 30,500km (19,000 mile) set of twin cables connecting the US with Australia and New Zealand known as Southern Cross – is planned to come online in 2022, and will connect directly to Fiji, Samoa, Kiribati and Tokelau.
Chinese telecoms company China Unicom counts the existing Southern Cross cables among its network capabilities – meaning it is likely to have access to the cable through a leasing agreement with one of the other companies that uses the cable, according to Canberra think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
China Unicom and China Telecom also list the Asia America Gateway Cable System as one of their network capabilities, according to ASPI. The 20,000km (12,400-mile) cable came online in 2009 and connects the US, Guam, Hong Kong, Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.
It is owned by a consortium of carriers including AT&T, Telekom Malaysia, Telstra and Spark.
A cable backed by Google and the Australian Academic and Research Network connecting Japan and Australia through Guam is to come online early next year.
Natasha Beschorner, senior digital development specialist at the World Bank, said that while there were challenges ahead in terms of broadband access and affordability, increased connectivity was starting to bring new opportunities to the Pacific.
“Digital technologies can contribute to economic diversification, income generation and service delivery in the Pacific,” Beschorner said. “E-commerce and financial technologies are emerging and governments are considering how to roll out selected services online.”
Experts say the industry has recently seen a switch from cables being mostly funded by telecommunication carriers to being funded by content providers, like Google and Facebook. Members of the private cable industry say content companies can afford to invest in cable infrastructure to ensure the supply chain for their customers, but that the competition puts the squeeze on the research-and-development budgets of other types of companies.
Sloots at Southern Cross predicted that the nations which connected directly to the massive next-generation cable – Samoa, Kiribati and Tokelau – would be able to function as connecting points for intra-Pacific cables.
“There’s a blossoming effect in capability once certain islands are connected,” Sloots said.
There is also the push to locate an exchange point within the Pacific so that internet data no longer has to travel to a hub in Tokyo or Los Angeles and back to Pacific nations when processing – a move that could ultimately lower the cost of broadband internet service for consumers in the Pacific.
Perhaps the most effective outcome could be for Pacific nations to cut the cord and receive their internet by satellite.
The Asian Development Bank has agreed to give a US$50 million loan to Singapore’s Kacific Broadband Satellites International to provide up to two billion people across the Asia-Pacific region with affordable satellite-based internet.