US China spat is Balkanising even subsea cables

Recent developments in the subsea cable game suggest we’re moving towards a time when China and the US operate their own distinct internet backbones.

At the start of his blog announcing his company’s participation in yet another East Asian subsea cable project that excludes China, Head of Google Global Networking Bikash Koley stated: “Did you know that 98% of international internet traffic is ferried around the world by subsea cables?” He did so to make a generic point about the importance of connectivity, but also served to highlight the critical importance of them to the global economy.

Today we’re once more indebted to The Register for alerting us to the news that China Mobile appears to have bailed out of a subsea cable project to link the Philippines with the US, leaving the inevitable US internet giants, this time Amazon and Facebook, to finish the job. The filing doesn’t give a reason why China Mobile is pulling out, but it’s easy to assume the political aggro between the US and China was a significant factor.

As we reported a year ago, the US ‘Clean Network’ initiative seeks to establish telecoms networks entirely free of Chinese vendors and influence. It was started under the Trump presidency but, as with much of the rest of his foreign policy, is being maintained and even augmented by the current administration. The Reg piece notes one aspect of this policy is ‘clean cable’, so maybe the era of collaboration between US and Chinese companies over such projects is over.

Not quite, however, because Facebook has also just announced the addition of some new branches to the 2Africa subsea cable system, which connects much of Africa and the Middle East to Western Europe. One of the other partners in the project is China Mobile, so US and Chinese companies are allowed to collaborate in this context, maybe because the cable doesn’t go directly to the US.

“2Africa, which will be the largest subsea cable project in the world, will deliver faster, more reliable internet service to each country where it lands,” says the Facebook announcement. “Communities that rely on the internet for services from education to healthcare, and business will experience the economic and social benefits that come from this increased connectivity.”

Subsea cable systems are vital for the successful functioning of the internet and projects such 2Africa clearly have the potential to radically improve the economic circumstances of some of the world’s poorest countries. It would be a shame if, through their jostling for global supremacy, the US and China end up splitting the internet in two, to the detriment of everyone else.

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