Telecommunications: The arctic battle for control of submarine cables has only just begun

To connect Southeast Asia to Europe, undersea internet cables must pass through the China Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal. The route between Asia and North America runs through the Pacific Ocean via the Hawaiian Islands. However, there is a more direct route between the three continents: that of the Arctic Ocean. It was long considered impractical, but circumstances have changed.

The melting of the Arctic ice and the resulting rise in water is very bad news for humanity. But for the passage of undersea cables, which carry 99% of intercontinental electronic communications, this is a real boon.

Connecting Japan to Europe via the North Pole

A consortium of three companies, including Far North Digital, an American company based in Alaska, Finland’s Cinia and Japan’s Arteria Networks, is planning to construct a fiber optic cable via the Northwest route to connect shores of Japan to Europe via North America. This 14,000-kilometer cable would bypass Alaska to the north, meander between the Canadian islands and pass under Greenland, connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. The consortium plans to deploy ships starting work in the summer of 2023 and expects an operational cable by the end of 2026. A pharaonic project estimated at around one billion euros.

But according to Tim Reilly, a researcher at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, the game is worth the effort. “ In the age of big data processing and artificial intelligence, latency, and therefore the speed at which data can be transmitted and interpreted, is the sinews of war. However, a shorter route means lower latency. An arctic cable linking London to Tokyo would enable up to 40% faster data transmission compared to existing cables. ” The challenge is economic, but it also involves security and surveillance. Indeed, the Snowden case showed how the NSA used the wires to collect vast amounts of data.

The US court ruled that the NSA surveillance program uncovered by Snowden was illegal

A blessing for research

Such a cable would also have the benefit of providing a good connection to geographic areas where none currently exist. “ Indigenous communities living in Greenland and northern Canada could gain access to decent internet and benefit from services like medical teleconsultation predicts Mads Qvist Frederiksen, executive director of the Arctic Economic Council, an independent international organization of companies working with and in the Arctic. ” In addition, Greenland is an ideal place to install data centers: there is space, the cold allows natural cooling of the servers and there is plenty of renewable energy, especially hydropower. However, for this you need a good internet connection. »

“Without a submarine cable, there is no European internet anymore” (Jean-Luc Vuillemin, Orange)

In addition to the economic interest, a cable in the Arctic would also be a boon for scientific research, giving researchers access to high-precision data on seismic activity and Arctic water temperature trends.

According to Nima Khorrami, a researcher at the Arctic Institute, an independent think tank, the Arctic is finally a safer route for undersea cables. “ The Arctic is much less traveled than the other oceans and the cables are therefore less likely to be damaged by boats. Earthquakes and tsunamis are also much rarer there. »

An increasingly feasible technical challenge

According to Tim Reilly, there is another, even faster, route to connect Southeast Asia directly to Europe Northern Seaway (Northern Sea Route), which runs along the Siberian coasts. However, it does not pass through Russian territorial waters, which puts an end to inadmissibility for Westerners in the current situation. ” For Europeans and Asians, this route would have the double advantage of being faster and completely escaping the influence of the USA and thus the spying opportunities of the NSA. But in return it means throwing oneself into the arms of Russia, whose submarines are capable of sabotaging the cables in the event of a dispute, and which is also suspected of being able to spy on these cables. For this reason, the north-west route is widely preferred today. »

As well as melting ice making the Arctic Ocean more accessible to ships, Nima Khorrami says technological advances are helping make it a more usable zone today.

Autonomous submarines or underwater drones open up new perspectives. They make it possible to reduce costs but also operational risks in an area where the harsh climate (cold and dark) combined with its isolation and lack of structures capable of conducting rescue operations have long deterred companies and governments from the Arctic seabed to route cables.

Finland, for example, is in the process of building an entire ecosystem around these autonomous submarines as part of the One Sea project. As these submarines become cheaper and more efficient, it is certain that more companies and states will start building submarine cables in the Arctic. »

The Arctic, future telecommunications hub?

Especially since fiber optic cables are just one of the aspects that make the Arctic a strategic area for the future of telecommunications. According to Mads Qvist Frederiksen, the future is also in the stars. ” From Planet to OneWeb to Terma in Denmark, a growing number of satellite operators are turning to the Arctic for a number of reasons.

First, it has the highest latitude on the planet, making it an ideal place to orbit and manage a fleet of satellites, as well as transmit data from space. There is also a potential market for Internet via satellite as connectivity there is very low. But also for observation satellites that support search and rescue missions or better monitor the consequences of climate change… »

Cable and satellites can thus form a coherent ecosystem around the energy projects of the various participating countries in the region, allowing them to better manage and intercept data streams, install more efficient missile guidance systems from space, and distribute digital content and services in a logic of influence .

Towards a new cold war in the Arctic?

Indeed, as the Arctic warms, what we are witnessing today is a cooling of relations between the various countries of the Arctic Circle, in an area where cooperation has long been the order of the day. According to its founding document, the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, the Arctic Council (an intergovernmental forum bringing together eight countries with part of their territory in the Arctic, including Russia and the United States) is not concerned with military security issues. But at the time of the war in Ukraine and as Finland and Sweden, two Council member countries, prepare to join NATO, the future of this clause seems more uncertain than ever.

The specter of an “iron curtain” hangs over the Arctic, a highly strategic space

With these two countries joining the Alliance, the Arctic suddenly finds itself at the center of NATO’s strategic concerns as Sino-Russian ties in the region are strengthened and deepened in response. NATO will therefore have to significantly expand its operations in this area to the Bering Strait and Russia’s Far East, which poses a real logistical and strategic challenge. ‘ notes Tim Reilly. In early April, 27,000 troops and a number of cruisers and fighter jets were stationed in Norway, near the Russian border, as part of the Cold Response 2022 military exercise, the country’s largest since the Cold War. For its part, the United States has deployed dozens of fighter jets to Alaska and has developed a strategy to “ restore their supremacy over the Arctic “.

Ten years ago, the Arctic was a taboo subject at NATO, particularly because of the need to maintain good relations with Russia in the region. The situation had evolved over several years, partly due to China’s interest in the Arctic, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine completely changed the situation, as evidenced by Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO candidacy. The security issue is now central to the region “Summarizes Damien Degeorges, Doctor of Political Science, specialist in Arctic geopolitics and author of Rare Earths: geopolitical issue of the 21st century (ed. L’Harmattan).

Add to this the growing ambitions of China, which has made no secret of its interest in this area rich in fish, drinking water, rare minerals and hydrocarbons and has invested in Arctic LNG 2, a liquefied natural gas plant project by Russian gas giant Novatek, on the Gydan Peninsula, and plans to more than 90 billion US dollars in the infrastructure of a “ polar silk road “. Between the desires of the great powers, major economic projects and geostrategic interests, the Arctic today is less an area of ​​cooperation and more an area of ​​tension.