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Facebook and Google underwater cables protect US technology from China

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Photographer: Roslan Rahman / AFP

Photographer: Roslan Rahman / AFP

In Norse mythology, Bifrost was a burning rainbow bridge that connects different worlds. In 2021, Silicon Valley-funded fiber optic cables will connect the United States and Singapore.

Introduced this week, the modern Bifrost is one of two new trans-Pacific fiber optic cables aimed at increasing data capacity between the two countries. They are backed by Google and Facebook and they will take a new route to ensure they are far enough away from China. The project reveals how parts of the world are more vigilant against China and increasingly dependent on US tech giants.

Many of the more than 500 submarine cables around the world follow historically important routes. Cables are very concentrated under the Red Sea, the North Atlantic, and, more importantly, the South China Sea. Indeed, most of the cables connecting North America and Asia pass around Taiwan, landing in Japan before crossing the South China Sea.

Quick Take How some small islands fought Japan and China

From others

However, there are two problems with that route. First, relatively frequent earthquakes off Taiwan can break cables and disrupt connections. And second, they are very close to China and are increasingly seen by US intelligence as a risk. Recorded in 2019 by former US Admiral and Bloomberg columnist James Stabridis.

Just last year, after the Justice Department demanded that the Federal Communications Commission deny permission, Google and Facebook had to abandon another cable plan that would connect Hong Kong to the United States. DoJ provided China with a way to retrieve personal data of Americans and pointed out the state ownership of one of the companies involved.

Blockade surge

YouTube and Netflix’s share of data usage in the Asia-Pacific region surged in 2020 as the blocked people streamed more online video.

Source: Sandvine, “The Global Internet Phenomena Report: Covid-19 Spotlight”, May 2020

This latest project will help you avoid these issues. Two cables (the second called Echo, because sonar was used to detect the ocean floor) crossed the Pacific Ocean and went straight to Guam, the territory of the US islands, from there to the Indonesian islands. I will go up the street and the Java Sea. And avoid approaching Singapore properly to China.

It makes strategic sense to do so. The life of such cables is 15 to 20 years. As China becomes more active globally, it is wise to keep the data flow away from the country. This link provides two tech giants with a data gateway to fast-growing markets such as Indonesia and Malaysia. These countries have a total population of about 300 million. This is the best enterprise geopolitical risk relief.

Relations with Singapore are also wise. Like world trade, island states are already an important link to data sent northeast from the South China Sea and west from India, according to Alan Mauldin, an analyst at market research firm Telegeography. The country has become even more important as China cracks down on its economic rival, Hong Kong, which is another major data exchange in Asia. Investment is a classic example of how crackdowns are working in Singapore’s hands.

Bloomberg Businessweek: China’s 7,500-mile submarine cable to Europe fuels Internet tensions

Cross-Pacific ventures also tell important stories about the tech companies themselves. According to Facebook, the two links will increase the overall capacity of data transfers across the Pacific Ocean by 70%. And that important part is reserved for Google and Facebook only.

Therefore, this project will improve internet connectivity in major growth markets, but in the long run by ensuring that there is no need to negotiate costly new leases to send data. It also helps reduce costs. As data usage increases with the advent of 5G networks, it may outperform its shallow-pocket rivals, who lack dedicated data capacity.

Drink from spigot

Six tech companies account for 43% of all global web traffic between them

Source: Sandvine, The Global Internet Phenomena Report, 2019

Google is currently investing in at least 15 submarine cable projects around the world, and Facebook has about 12 public funds. Both are Amazon.com Inc, which competes with Google for cloud services. And Microsoft Inc. Also invests heavily in underwater infrastructure. Each cable can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Spending cuts off long-standing complaints from telecom executives that tech companies are investing heavily in infrastructure just to get the most out of their economic benefits. Facebook’s share of capital investment has risen steadily in recent years and is expected to reach 20% of sales this year. That’s more than 11% at AT & T Inc. or 13% at T-Mobile’s parent company, Deutsche Telekom AG. Technology companies are now playing an important role in building our connectivity.

But as these giants expand their digital dominance through the physical world, they discover a whole new set of risks to navigate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story: Alex Webb ([email protected])

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nicole Torres ([email protected])

Before coming here, it’s in the Bloomberg terminal.

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