The Arctic battle for control of undersea cables has 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 passes through the Pacific Ocean through the island of Hawaii. However, there is another direct route between the three continents: the Arctic Ocean. This was long considered impractical, but the situation has changed.

The melting of Arctic ice, and the resulting rise in water, is very bad news for humanity. But for submarine cable passage, through which 99% of intercontinental electronic communications run, it 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 Cenia and the Japanese Arteria Network, plans to build a fiber optic cable across the northwest route to connect the coast of Japan. Europe via North America. This 14,000 km long cable will bypass Alaska in the north, pass through the Canadian islands and go under Greenland, thus connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. The consortium plans to deploy the vessel to begin operations 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 Riley, 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 transferred and interpreted, is the cynics of war. However, a shorter route means lower latency. An Arctic cable connecting London to Tokyo would allow data to be transferred 40% faster than existing cables. ” The challenge is economic, but security and surveillance are also concerns. The Snowden case actually revealed how the NSA exploited cables to collect massive amounts of data.

According to US court rules, Snowden’s NSA surveillance activities were illegal

A boon for research

Such cables would also have the advantage of providing a better connection in geographical areas where one is currently lacking. “ Indigenous communities living in Greenland and northern Canada can thus gain access to a decent internet and benefit from services such as medical teleconsultation. Mads Cuvist Frederiksen, executive director of the Arctic Economic Council, an independent international organization that works with and on the Arctic, predicted. ” In addition, Greenland is an ideal place to install data centers: there is space, the cold allows the servers to cool naturally, and there is a lot of renewable energy, especially hydropower. But for this you need a good internet connection. »

“Without submarine cables, there is no European Internet” (Jean-Luc Vuillemin, Orange)

Beyond economic interests, a cable in the Arctic would also be a boon for scientific research, allowing researchers to access high-precision data on seismic activity and temperature evolution in the Arctic. ‘Water.

According to Arctic Institute researcher Nima Khorami, the Arctic is ultimately a safe route for undersea cables. “ The Arctic is much less traveled than other oceans, and cables damaged by boats are less likely to be seen. Earthquakes and tsunamis are also less frequent there. »

An increasingly achievable technical challenge

There is another, faster route to connect Southeast Asia directly to Europe, according to Tim Riley. North Sea Route (Northern Sea Route), which runs along the coast of Siberia. However, it failed to pass through Russia’s territorial waters, which ended up being unacceptable to the West in the current situation. ” For Europeans and Asians, this route would have the double advantage of being faster and completely escaping US influence, and therefore potential spying by the NSA. But that would mean throwing itself into the arms of Russia, whose submarines are capable of sabotaging the cables in the event of a conflict and which it suspects of spying on the cables. For this reason the north-west route is now widely preferred. »

According to Nima Khorami, in addition to the melting of the ice, which makes the Arctic Ocean more accessible to ships, it is technological progress that contributes to making it a more exploitable region today.

Autonomous submarines, or underwater drones, open up new perspectives. They make it possible to reduce costs, but also operational risks, in a region where companies and governments have long been kept off the map by the harsh climate (cold and dark), its isolation and the lack of structures capable of conducting rescue operations. Laying cables on the Arctic seabed.

For example, Finland is in the process of building an entire ecosystem around these autonomous submarines through the One Sea project. As these submarines become cheaper and more efficient, it’s a safe bet that more companies and states will start building submarine cables in the Arctic. »

The Arctic, the telecommunications hub of the future?

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

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

Cables and satellites can thus create a coherent ecosystem around the power projects of the various countries involved in the region, allowing them to better manage and intercept data flows, install more efficient missile guidance systems from space, and distribute digital content and services in a logical manner. effect

Towards a new Cold War in the Arctic?

Because if the Arctic is warming, it is actually the cooling of relations between countries in the Arctic Circle that we are witnessing today, 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 that brings together eight countries with parts of their territory in the Arctic region, including Russia and the United States) is not seized of military security issues. But amid the war in Ukraine, and as Finland and Sweden, two of the council’s member states, prepare to join NATO, the future of the clause seems more uncertain than ever.

The specter of an “Iron Curtain” hangs over the Arctic, a highly strategic place

With the entry of these two countries into the alliance, the Arctic suddenly finds itself at the center of NATO’s strategic concerns, as Sino-Russian relations in the region will strengthen and deepen in response. NATO therefore needs to significantly expand its operations in the region, to the Bering Strait and the Russian Far East, which represents a real logistical and strategic challenge. “, notes Tim Riley. In early April, as part of the Cold Response 2022 military exercise, 27,000 people, as well as several cruisers and fighter planes, were deployed in Norway, not far from the Russian border, the largest in this country. Cold war. The United States, for its part, has moved dozens of fighter planes to Alaska and established a strategy “ Re-establish their dominance over the Arctic

Ten years ago the Arctic was a taboo subject in NATO, especially because it was a question of maintaining good relations in the area with Russia. The situation had been evolving for several years, partly due to China’s interest in the Arctic, but Russia’s aggression in Ukraine completely changed the situation, as evidenced by the candidacy of Sweden and Finland in NATO. Security issues are now central to the region “Damien DeGeorges, Doctor of Political Science, expert on the geopolitics of the Arctic and author of Rare Earths: Geopolitical Issues for the 21st Century (ed. L’Harmattan).

Added to this is the growing ambition of China, which has made no secret of its interest in the region, rich in fish, drinking water, rare minerals and hydrocarbons, investing in Arctic LNG 2, a liquefied natural gas plant project by Russian gas giant Novatek. , located on the Gydan Peninsula, and plans to invest more than 90 billion dollars in infrastructure “ Polar Silk Road “Between great power ambitions, big economic projects and geostrategic interests, the Arctic is now less a place for cooperation than a region under tension.