the arctic battle for control of undersea cables has just begun

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

The melting of the Arctic ice, and the rising water it will cause, is very bad news for humanity. But for the transmission of submarine cables, through which 99% of intercontinental electronic communications are transmitted, this is a real boon.

Connecting Japan to Europe via the North Pole

A consortium consisting of three companies, including Far North Digital, an American company based in Alaska, the Finnish Cinia and the Japanese Arteria Networks, plans to build a fiber optic cable across the North-West that route, to connect the coasts of Japan. Europe through North America. This 14,000 kilometer long cable will cross Alaska to the north, winding between the Canadian islands and passing under Greenland, thus connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The consortium plans to deploy the ships to start working in the summer of 2023, and expects an operational cable at the end of 2026. A pharaonic project estimated at about one billion euros.

But the game is worth the effort, according to Tim Reilly, a researcher at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. “ In the era of big data processing and artificial intelligence, latency, and therefore the speed at which data can be transferred and interpreted, are the roots of war. However, a shorter route means lower latency. The arctic cable connecting London to Tokyo will allow the transfer of data up to 40% faster, compared to existing cables. ” The challenge is economic, but also related to security and surveillance. The Snowden case actually revealed how the NSA exploited the wires to collect massive amounts of data.

The NSA surveillance program revealed by Snowden was illegal, US court rules

A boon for research

Such a cable also has the advantage of offering a good connection in geographical areas that currently lack one. “ Indigenous communities living in Greenland and northern Canada can gain access to a decent Internet, and benefit from services such as medical teleconsultation predicted Mads Qvist Frederiksen, executive director of the Arctic Economic Council, an independent international organization of businesses working with and in the Arctic. ” In addition, Greenland is an ideal place to install data centers: there is space, the cold allows the servers to be cooled naturally, and there is a lot of renewable energy, especially hydroelectricity. But for this you need a good internet connection. »

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

Beyond the economic interest, an Arctic cable can also be a boon for scientific research, by allowing researchers to access high-precision data on seismic activities and the evolution of temperature in Arctic.

The Arctic is ultimately a safer route for undersea cables, according to Nima Khorrami, a researcher at the Arctic Institute, an independent think tank. “ The Arctic is less traveled than other oceans, and the chance of seeing damaged cables on boats is therefore lower. Earthquakes and tsunamis are also less frequent there. »

A more achievable technical challenge

There is another, faster route that connects Southeast Asia directly to Europe, according to Tim Reilly, the North Sea Route (Northern Sea Route), which follows the coast of Siberia. However, it failed to pass through Russian territorial waters, which, in the current situation, constitutes an end to the inadmissibility of Westerners. ” For Europeans and Asians, this route has the double advantage of being faster and completely escaping the influence of the United States, and therefore the possibilities of espionage on the part of the NSA. But this means throwing oneself back into the arms of Russia, whose submarines are capable of sabotaging cables in the event of a dispute, and which one also suspects are capable of spying on these cables. This is why the North-West route is now widely preferred. »

In addition to the melting of the ice, which makes the Arctic Ocean more accessible to ships, it is also the development of technology that now contributes to making it a more exploitable zone, according to Nima Khorrami.

Autonomous submarines, or underwater drones, open up new perspectives. They make it possible to reduce the costs, but also the risks of the operation, in an area where the harsh climate (cold and dark), coupled with its isolation and the lack of structures capable of carrying out rescue missions , has long kept companies and governments off the map. the Arctic seabed to lay the cables.

Finland, for example, 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 is a safe bet 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 place for the future of telecommunications. According to Mads Qvist Frederiksen, the future also lies in the stars. ” From Planet to OneWeb to Denmark’s Terma, 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, which makes it an ideal place to orbit and manage a fleet of satellites, as well as transfer data from space. There is also a potential market for Internet via satellite, since the connection is very low there. But also for observation satellites that are likely to support search and rescue missions or to better monitor the consequences of climate change… »

Cables and satellites can thus become a coherent ecosystem around the power projects of the various countries involved in the region, allowing them to better manage and intercept data flows, -installation of more efficient missile guidance systems from space, and distribution of digital content and services in a logic. of influence.

Towards a new Cold War in the Arctic?

Because if the Arctic is warming, it will be a cooling of the relationship between the different countries of the polar circle that we are witnessing today, in an area where cooperation has long been the norm. According to its founding document, the Declaration of Ottawa in 1996, the Arctic Council (an intergovernmental forum that brings together eight countries that have part of their territory in the Arctic, including Russia and the United States) was not seized by the military security matter. But during the war in Ukraine, and while Finland and Sweden, two member countries of the Council, are preparing to join NATO, the future of this clause seems more uncertain than before.

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

With the entry of these two countries into the alliance, the Arctic suddenly finds itself at the heart of NATO’s strategic concerns, as Sino-Russian relations in the region will strengthen and deepen in response. NATO therefore needs to increase its operations in the area, as far as the Bering Strait and the far east of Russia, which represents a real logistical and strategic challenge. “, said Tim Reilly. At the beginning of April, 27,000 people, as well as a number of cruisers and fighter planes, were sent to Norway, not far from the Russian border, as part of the Cold Response 2022 military exercise, its largest country since the Cold War. The United States, for its part, moved several fighter planes to Alaska and established a strategy of “ reestablish their dominance in the Arctic “.

The Arctic was a taboo subject in NATO ten years ago, mainly because it was a question of maintaining good relations in the area with Russia. The situation improved for several years, partly due to China’s interest in the Arctic, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine completely changed the situation, as evidenced by the candidacies of Sweden and Finland to NATO. The issue of security is now central to the region “Summary by Damien Degeorges, doctor of political science, specialist in Arctic geopolitics and author of Rare Earths: geopolitical issues of the 21st century (Ed. L’Harmattan).

Added to all this are the growing ambitions of China, which does not hide its interest in this area rich in fish, drinking water, rare minerals and hydrocarbons, investing in Arctic LNG 2, a gas giant in Russia Novatek’s liquefied natural gas plant project. , located on the Gydan Peninsula, and plans to invest more than $90 billion in infrastructure in a “ polar silk road “. Between the desires of great powers, large economic projects and geostrategic interests, the Arctic is now no more a space for cooperation than a territory under tension.