US News

Undersea internet cables are causing geopolitical tension

If you’ve ever emailed a resort in Fiji or Vanuatu about that long-awaited holiday, it’s likely your email traveled through an undersea internet cable. Such cables carry much of the internet traffic around the globe, in conjunction with underground fiber connections, satellites, and microwave links.

For Pacific Island countries, undersea internet cables can be crucial. The number of Pacific Island countries with such connections has increased substantially in recent years. Even so, many countries still rely on a single cable and others have no cable at all.

Each undersea cable is about the width of a garden hose, made up of protective layers of metal and plastic wrapped around the hair-thin optic fibers that carry signals as pulses of light. There are more than 400 submarine cables criss-crossing the world’s seabeds, with a combined length of 1.3 million kilometers.

The internet began as a US government project, and it is still dominated by the US today. As Chinese companies have become involved in laying undersea cables, geopolitics is influencing key decisions about the rollout of internet cables across the Pacific.

Aid and cables

Pacific Island countries are keen to improve their connectivity. In response, aid donors have been funding new cables.

Australia funded the Coral Sea Cable System for Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands that launched in December 2019. New Zealand supported the Cook Islands component of the Manatua cable, which landed in Cook Islands in September 2020.

Australia, the US, and Japan are planning a second cable for Palau and Australia has provided funding to assess route options for Timor Leste’s first cable.