Shifting Sands: Undersea Cable Networks

By Justin Heyes. 24th June 2024

The world is more connected today than it has been at any point in human history, and one of the unsung heroes behind this is a vast sprawling web of undersea cables, quietly powering the instant global communications that people have come to rely on. In this digital era where data is viewed as the “new oil” these networks have become indispensable spanning about 1.4 million kilometers (km) and transmitting over 95 per cent of global data traffic (NOAA, 2024).

These cables laid at the bottom of the ocean are the most efficient way to transfer data being far superior to satellites, capable of transmitting multiple terabits of data per second, offering the fastest and most reliable method of data transfer available today (CNET, 2023). This is vital for the development of countries as it underpins their digital communications in finance and commerce, air and sea navigations, defense, as well as diplomacy. These cables are especially important in Southeast Asia which hosts many emerging economies with surging bandwidth demand.

New submarine cables can cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars and take many years to progress from concept to commercial services running over a cable. These investments were traditionally owned by telecom carriers who would form a consortium of all parties interested in using the cable. While these models still exist today, one of the biggest changes in the past few years is the type of companies involved in building cables. Content providers such as Google, Meta, Microsoft, and Amazon are major investors in new cable, to ensure against the capacity they deploy.

As of June 2024, there are more than 600 active and planned submarine cables (Telegeography, 2024) globally. The total number of active cables is constantly changing as new cables enter service and older cables are decommissioned. While cables are often touted as having been designed with a life of 25 years and may extend further in their use, research conducted between 2010 and 2022 showed that the reality is closer to 17 years, with most being decommissioned when they were not economically viable, or there were advancements in cables that would be more effective (SubOptic, 2023).

This projected shelf-life may change once again, as data created from generative AI (Artificial Intelligence) continues to increase. AI produced data is much denser than its predecessor and has consequently required the industry to upgrade or implement new methods when transmitting and processing this data. As many new datacenters are being built with much denser AI racks to be able to house and process this data, cable companies are also looking at increasing the capacity of their cables to ensure the speed and connectivity that was available prior to the dawn of AI. 

This can be done through upgrades to the subsea cable landing stations, but it is also well known that cable technology advances at an incredible rate, and so is likely to result in new cables being laid.

Singapore has been a major connection point for subsea cables, which has given rise to its prominence as a digital hub within the ASEAN region, with 26 subsea cable systems leading into the country, 17 of which are currently active. While it has been announced that Singapore has plans to increase this capacity, as with Hong Kong and many of the trade ports originally used when planning the initial subsea cable routes, questions of capacity to store the data transferred have been raised, especially since the Singaporean Moratorium in 2019, which lead to the rise in developments in Johor to cater to the overflow.

Subsea cables do face challenges unique to their position. Being underwater, upgrading or repairing them is both costly and time consuming, compared to terrestrial cables. There have been many recorded instances of downtime from subsea cables owing to maritime activities like fishing, anchoring, and sand dredging posing great threats to submarine cables, particularly in Southeast Asia’s busy chokepoints, unintentionally severing the cables on the seabed as they dredge the ocean floor. 

Another factor in international data transfer is geopolitical relations. Submarine cables are critical infrastructure that should not be a tool for geopolitical competition due to their importance to regional digital connectivity, however the reality is far from that ideal. The South China Sea offers the shortest possible route linking Southeast Asia to the more developed Northeast Asia, however disputes have posed challenges to submarine cable connectivity in Southeast Asia as approval for cable installations and maintenance in the disputed waters must first be obtained from all claimant states, including China (CSIS, 2022), which can be time-consuming, as the country has been known to proactively block, or delay any developments affiliated with America, or allied countries.

With Malaysia considering the potential benefit of becoming a member of the BRICS community, there are greater opportunities on the horizon. While the country has successfully managed a careful relationship with both China and the US, remaining neutral throughout the tensions, the new markets that BRICS present provide favourable deals and access to populous markets such as India, for Malaysian telcos and the expansion of access to international data. This move may also see benefits in the diversification of technological resources, utilising both Western and Eastern technologies to benefit Malaysia’s growth as a leader in the digital landscape.

Understanding all this, Malaysia must realise its opportunity to capitalise on the inherent potential it has. With the strategic position of being able to service data coming from the North, South, East and West of it and being projected to lead Southeast Asia in live capacity within the next 2-3 years, there is a clear incentive to establish its own subsea landing stations, providing new more efficient international data routes, while also benefiting from political neutrality within the region which makes it eligible to service both sides of the data dispute.


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