State of the Network: Geopolitics and its impact on connectivity infrastructure

[View as PDF]

With some hesitation and reluctance to begin this piece regarding Coronavirus, it does pose some relevance to the state of the World's fibre network and perception of the moment. The pandemic has underpinned the need for universal access to today's Connectivity, and therefore the need for unity and inclusivity with how we use, develop and build its utilities and infrastructure. However, it seems the state of our global network is actually dividing, into spheres of political influence and ownership.

Geopolitics and Connectivity

It has been a subject from the very installation of telegraph cable lines in the 19th century. As as we continually develop internet technologies, infrastructure and practices of the 21st century with such a rapid pace, our modes of regulation and governance are being challenged at all levels and a failure to keep up. This means the relationship between Geopolitics and Connectivity is becoming increasingly pertinent now more than ever.

In this first bi-annual article series, which seeks to investigate and provide you with a review on the state of our Global Network, we introduce the idea of Geopolitics and Connectivity. We do so to explain how it is impacting the development of our internet infrastructure around the world.

We will use the recent events in the Google-Facebook subsea cable project as an added lens to look at this topic with.

National security concerns halt Hong Kong connection to Google Facebook subsea cable project 

Google-Facebook's ambitious subsea data cable project that sought to connect Hong Kong to Los Angeles won't be happening after all. Among other firms, Google and Facebook have been running the Pacific Light Cable Network (PCLN) Project since 2016. The idea of the project was to provide the first direct subsea cable system between Hong Kong and Los Angeles with ultra-high capacity. Upon launch of the project, Google said the cable would "provide enough capacity for Hong Kong to have 80 million concurrent HD video conference calls with Los Angeles" and expand their ability to serve people in Asia.

Source: Google Cloud


Fast forward to 2020, and the 12,000 km of cables have landed on the sea bed after years of delay and a multi-million dollar spend. Success?

Not quite. 

As of August 26th 2020, the project hit an unexpected spanner. 

US officials stated the cable should not connect through Hong Kong over concerns that the Chinese government might be able to access sensitive data. This decision arrived off the back of a recommendation by an FCC committee, also known as Team Telecom, last June. They said it was not in the US national security or law enforcement interests to allow a direct cable connection landing in a location whose government had previously expressed its intention to collect data about US citizens.

This seems like a direct situational issue, but in fact, it demonstrates some broader complexities that come with global Connectivity and geopolitics. 

Let's break it down.

Connectivity and Geopolitics: Who dominates?

Source: Telegeography


There is an overarching sense that the US dominates 'the internet' and technological and internet-based advances. Correct, internet giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix and Facebook arrive at the forefront of your mind when you think 'internet'. However, the US does not rule on the infrastructure, the nuts and bolts, the hardware of the internet. The very materials that even allow the US internet giants to perform. The ownership and control of these core elements of the internet are tilting increasingly toward European and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa) countries around the World.

Where are the geopolitics in this? Well, different geographies must rely on internet accessibility in various locations, whether they like it or not. So, in a simplified summary, the US is relying on internet connectivity owned in other countries, increasingly so China.

There is also the idea that a contest for connectivity ownership between different countries is mounting as a result. For example, the extensive Belt and Road Initiative underway in China is arguably set to shift world connectedness in general - beyond internet connectivity - due to the new nexus of economic corridors, physical and digital ecosystems, transportation hubs, and other linkages. What does this mean for other nations such as the USA? Does this feel like too much Chinese-centric Connectivity? 

The very initiation of the PLCN project in the first place can perhaps reflect these themes. Was it a move to own and control more portions of the internet from a geographically US perspective? Is this a response to the growing capabilities of China and the East?

If so, the refusal from US officials seems slightly counter-productive. The very point of the Google-facebook line was that Hong Kong, as a geographical requirement, would become an Asian hub to help gain US tech firms more customers. 

So why did they do this? 


Global Connectivity is politically undefined.


Well, there is another aspect of Connectivity and geopolitics that perhaps contributes to this US decision. 

Despite the absolute fundamentality of Connectivity, we have still not expressed it in political terms. Not in the West, at least. There is no single universal internet, moreover no single set of global rules that define the use and boundaries of the internet. Additionally, for the protocols that are in place, it could be argued that these are breaking down, especially with the rise of private internets.

The internet seems to be globally available and utilised in whichever way a country may choose to manage. However, due to the geographical ownership of internet hardware, complications arise in how these two factors interplay with each other. One country may see value and utilise the internet and the data it carries in a seemingly offbeat way to another country.

The threat the US has declared from China's access to their data perhaps presents this point. A contributing factor to Team Telecom's decision to refuse the PLCN comes from concerns about Dr Peng's involvement in the project. Dr Peng, the PLCN's PRC-based owners, have a relationship with the Chinese government's intelligence and security services and hold obligations under Chinese intelligence and cybersecurity laws.



Cable landing stations can be considered to be more critical from a security perspective, than the cables themselves. This is because, inside the landing station, you have access to the data, the ability to collect it and monitor the cable. The US refusal to allow Hong Kong to host this landing station perhaps displays an evident mistrust of how this connectivity infrastructure will be handled. 

If there was an inclusive reformulation of Connectivity as a political value, that almost geographically neutralised the internet, they might feel less concern toward the accessibility of their data. We can almost certainly detect Connectivity as a politicised value itself by China, but there is still an ambiguity from Japan and the West. This causes uncertainty in how to handle matters of global Connectivity, especially when it is due to affect international societies.

World politics and its relationship with Connectivity more generally.


Here lies another part of this complicated relationship and offers more insight into the Google-Facebook cable debacle. 

Connectivity is at the core of pretty much everything we do. It is essential for everyday exchange and communication. Unfortunately, it therefore becomes easily entangled with general global politics and tensions.

There is no denying that a significant reason for Hong Kong to be prevented as the PLCN line's landing station is a result of the recent mounting tensions between China and the USA at a general level.  

The global significance of the internet means it cannot avoid becoming involved with geopolitics and international relations, in some ways, due to the very existence of it in the first place. For example, a reason for the mounting tension between China and the US stems from the belief that Chinese tech giant Huawei poses substantial US security threats. 

Can we identify the PCLN re-route as an expression of this general tension between China and the USA? Absolutely. Especially because the termination of the cable landing in Hong Kong counteracts a geopolitical reason for it even to have initiated. This illustrates the multifaceted complex of Connectivity and Geopolitics and how each facet impacts one another - they are deeply entangled. 


Conclusion: Are fibre optics-cables the oil pipes of The Cold War 2?

The geopolitical themes we have introduced here reflect a broader idea of a politicisation of Connectivity in two main ways.

1. There is the idea that Connectivity is becoming an increasingly politicised value. Its infrastructure development may stem from a nation's need to own, control and develop more hardware of their own either to govern how it is handled or in response to another nation's growing prestige in the industry. It is the battle for dominance.

2. And then there is the idea that Connectivity infrastructure is being used as a pawn, victim or weapon in an entangled broader global political framework. It can reflect the state of a relationship between two countries, or be used to alter a relationship. 

In short, it can both cause and reflect political tensions.

So, can we position Geopolitics and Connectivity as a new Cold War frontier? In many ways, yes. 

Whilst connectivity infrastructure is arguably being used to exemplify a nation's capabilities, it is perhaps becoming the very asset that causes geopolitical tensions itself. The denial of Hong Kong as a landing station can be seen as a response to geopolitical tensions and a front for expressing the state of relations between the US and China at the same time. The move itself will undoubtedly impact US-Hong Kong relations even further. We can also introduce the idea of competing definitions of Connectivity, as we briefly explored earlier, which mirrors the whole foundations of a Cold War: differing ideologies and the impacts of them. 

The Google-Facebook project remains in progress. The cable system's application has been resubmitted with US-Taiwan and US-Philippines portions of the system to replace Hong Kong. 

A spokeswoman from Google says "We continue to work through established channels to obtain cable landing licenses for our undersea cables.

What geopolitics can we identify here that allow the Philippines and Taiwan to be considered as a new alternative? 

Our next article will explore the growth of China's connectivity infrastructure, which will shed more light on the impact to its neighbouring Asian countries and their involvement in the Global Network infrastructure landscape. 

10.09.20

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Send them using our form and we can continue the conversation.

Thank you.

Sorry, it looks like something went wrong!

Call us on +44-207 186 0101
Or email hello@01T.co.uk

Need to get in touch?

Call us on +44-207 186 0101
Or email hello@01T.co.uk