The Cloud under the Sea — a good explainer of complex geopolitics

By on 9 May 2024

Category: Tech matters

Tags: , , ,

Blog home

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Jeremy Fernandez produced a very good hour-long documentary called ‘The Cloud Under the Sea‘ at the end of 2023. It examines the role of the submarine fibre network in modern society, in light of events like the Tongan earthquake, which caused disruptions in digital communications. The documentary also explores the broader geopolitical tensions surrounding Internet service provision to remote and island communities via underwater cables.

A few familiar faces are in this documentary such as Alan Mauldin, Research Director at TeleGeography and our own Kenny Huang, Chair of the APNIC Executive Council (EC) and CEO of the Taiwan Network Information Centre (TWNIC), who speaks at some length to the risks for Taiwan in loss of its digital communications infrastructure and connectivity to the world delivered over fibre optics.

Although the exact number is a bit of an urban myth there is no doubt the vast bulk of public communications, arguably over 90%, that flow between continents currently depends on transit through these fibre systems. Since the program went to air we have seen repeated fibre cuts worldwide including some in the Red Sea, leading to accusations of deliberate attacks.

There is a commonly held assumption in prioritizing a ‘fibre first’ approach because it offers low latency and high bandwidth. Current fibre encoding methods mean that terabits of data can flow down a single optical fibre as discussed in Geoff Huston’s recent explainer on coherent fibre optic transceivers.

However, the rise of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) systems means that there is another path to high-speed low-latency communications not at risk from fibre cut, although subject to other constraints including the question of who owns the satellites, and the associated launch and ground station systems.

It is possible that there is no ‘perfect’ solution to removing the risk of communications cut, and the consequent damage to civil society as global Internet connectivity is lost, but the least the industry can do is be alert to the geopolitical realities of communications infrastructure.

The ‘cloud is just somebody else’s computer’ is one adage. Another might be that ‘the cloud is just as tenuous as it sounds’. Connectivity into the wider Internet is as secure as a thin piece of glass sunk under the sea, or access to satellites in orbit above. If there’s only one path, there’s a risk of total loss. Even with diverse paths, such as sea-bed and orbital, this connectivity cannot be taken for granted.

Rate this article

The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *