Facebook and Google are building two new undersea data cables linking Southeast Asia to the US, marking the latest attempt to improve access and infrastructure in major markets like Indonesia and Singapore. Similar efforts in the past have been bogged down by US-China geopolitics, as Beijing seeks to expand its share of data infrastructure and Washington raises digital security concerns.
Facebook has announced plans to lay two underwater cables connecting the US to Indonesia and Singapore, the first set of cables directly linking Southeast Asia to North America.
Facebook says that the Echo and Bifrost trans-Pacific cables, as the company is calling them, will increase capacity for data transfer between the Americas and Southeast Asia by 70%. The Echo cable is also backed by investment from Google, which says that the cable will run from “Eureka, California to Singapore, with a stop-over in Guam, with plans to also land in Indonesia. Additional landings are possible in the future.”
The move is the latest in a growing trend of tech companies like Microsoft and Facebook investing in connectivity infrastructure around the world—Google is an investor in six undersea cables that have already been completed. Until recently, projects like fiber optic cables were primarily undertaken by telecom firms. Around 98% of the world’s internet and telephone communications are now carried by undersea cables, with about 400 in existence as of March 2021, according to Bloomberg.
Indonesians, like people in much of Southeast Asia, primarily access the internet through mobile data—according to one study, only 10% of the country has access to broadband internet—and the new cables represent a major step to improving access. Facebook also has plans to lay 3,000 kilometers of fiber cable across 20 cities in Indonesia.
US-China tensions threaten to derail cable projects
Cable systems have also become a source of friction between China and the US, as Washington considers data infrastructure projects by Chinese companies to be a national security threat due to the possibility of surveillance.
The Echo and Bifrost projects replace a plan to build cables linking the US, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines that was shelved after the US voiced concerns that a connection to China via Hong Kong would jeopardize data security. The US Justice Department said that the plan, known as the Pacific Light Cable network, “would expose US communications traffic to collection by the PRC [People’s Republic of China]. Such concerns have been heightened by the PRC government’s recent actions to remove Hong Kong’s autonomy and allow for the possibility that PRC intelligence and security services will operate openly in Hong Kong.”
Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also directly highlighted undersea cables as an aspect of US-China tensions, saying Washington must “ensure the undersea cables connecting our country to the global internet are not subverted for intelligence gathering by the People’s Republic of China at hyper scale.”
But tying data cable projects to geopolitics could have major negative impacts on internet access around the world. Politicizing the rollout of new data infrastructure could limit developing countries’ access to fiber by forcing them to choose between Chinese and US-backed projects.
According to Emily Taylor, a cyber policy analyst and fellow in security at Chatham House, the situation presents an unfortunate dilemma.
“It’s really a matter of regret to see those geopolitics descending right down the stack into the physical layers of the internet,” she said. “What we’re all going to have to come to terms with this is: How do we try to keep as many doors open as we can without laying ourselves open to national security threats?”
Facebook, Google focus on potential of Southeast Asian economies
For the firms building the new cables, the projects are about expanding their networks by supporting growth within Southeast Asia.
“The region is our fastest-growing population of users across our family of apps so it is really important for that continued growth … and for our products and services to have fast, reliable and sufficient capacity,” said Kevin Salvadori, Facebook’s vice-president of network investments.
The projects are a joint effort with Indonesian mobile telecom firm XL Axiata and Singaporean conglomerate Keppel Corporation. The companies aim to have the Echo cable operational sometime in 2023 and the Bifrost cable is slated for completion the following year.
The tech giants also tout cables as a way to drive economic growth. A study commissioned by Google last year found that the company’s investments in network infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific from 2010-19 led to the creation of 1.1 million jobs and a total of US$430 billion in GDP growth across the region. The company says its Asia-Pacific investments in the next five years will lead to even larger growth. Facebook, Google and Microsoft all have plans to open their own data centers in Indonesia.
Johnny G. Plate, Indonesia’s minister of communication and information technology, said that investments like Microsoft’s will support all domestic industries, from agriculture to ecommerce, and that the plans for the data center come with programs to support the country’s startup ecosystem.
As for the geopolitics of data, China’s efforts to build its own cables are a logical step for the country’s tech giants. The US considers them a threat in part because American firms have rarely seen any challenges from geopolitical rivals. Though US firms have built much of the existing undersea data infrastructure, China has now become a major player, supplying an estimated 11.4% of the world’s undersea cables as of 2019. According to one study, China’s share is likely to reach 20% by 2030.
According to Claude Achcar, a managing partner at tech consultancy Actel Consulting, Southeast Asian governments are better off bringing in tech companies from both the US and China, rather than favoring one over the other. As with much of the tired and at times frustrating US-China tensions, Southeast Asia is best served a balancing act, where possible.