Connecting Asia and the Americas

A deeper look at the Trans-Pacific Subsea Route By Eckhard Bruckschen and Ryan Wopschall

The Pacific Ocean is the largest and deepest of Earth’s five oceanic divisions. It extends from the Arctic Ocean in the north to Antarctica in the south and is bound by Asia and Australia in the west and the Americas in the east. The Pacific region is home to two thirds of the world’s population—all to be connected.

Numerous submarine cables criss-cross the Pacific to connect the APAC region with the Americas. The main route (being the shortest) across the Pacific is the northern route (US-Japan), similar to the northern route across the Atlantic (US-UK/France/Spain).  Other routings use Hawaii and, more recently, Guam as an intermediate hop.

Until around 2015, the Trans-Pacific market had limited growth, as the existing systems were able to upgrade their capacity to cater to the demand and therefore, prevented any new cable deployments. Actually, no Trans-Pacific cables were installed between 2010 and 2016, though this may also have been in part due to the preceding economic crash that slowed down investment in building new cable systems.

From 2016 to 2019, the region added systems such as FASTER, SEA-US, Hawaiki, NCP and JGA North. Some of these systems were consortium-style systems, involving OTTs. Others were built by RTI and Hawaiki. Both are entrepreneur-led companies that have a unique ability to initiate new systems with new routes, new landing points, and connecting the un-connected.

The entrance of the OTTs into the subsea world in the Pacific has changed the dynamic considerably. The demand from the OTTs, their desire for route and landing site diversity, and plans to connect their Hyperscale data centres with several submarine cable systems has created explosive growth.

The majority of new cables such as PLCN, HKA, BtoBE and also HKG were supposed to connect Hong Kong, China and California, US. But things turned out differently.

In 2020, Team Telecom signaled to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it should deny requests for direct subsea cable connections between the US and China. (Team Telecom is an ad hoc committee of the US Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice, which advised the FCC on national security and law enforcement aspects of foreign involvement in the US telecommunications services sector. The inter-agency working group was formalized last year as the ‘Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector’.)

When Pacific Light Cable Network’s application (PCLN), for what would have been the first such connection between the U.S. and Hong Kong, came up for review—along with other applications—the FCC was urged to block approval to PCLN because of national security concerns. The cable could continue to make its planned landings in Taiwan and the Philippines. Landing in Hong Kong, it is considered, “would expose US communications traffic to collection by Beijing.”

In February 2020, Google requested to activate one of six fiber pairs to Taiwan only. Then, the U.S. Department of Justice declined PLCN’s landing in Hong Kong in June 2020.

Subsequently, the consortia of other planned trans-Pacific cables (BtoBE, HKA, HKG) to Hong Kong began to withdraw their landing license applications.

The BtoBE cable system was replaced with the CAP-1 cable system, which would link the US west coast to the Philippines, without connecting to Hong Kong.

Southern Cross NEXT subsea cable installation

Considering these ongoing geopolitical tensions, submarine cable developers have re-adjusted their approach to Trans-Pacific cable routings, addressing also the geopolitical and congestion risks associated with the Luzon Strait and the South China Sea.

Subsequently, in March 2021, the “Bifrost” and the “Echo” Cable Systems, connecting the US with Guam, Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore were, announced. Google is “secretly” (no public announcement was made) implementing another cable system following the Northern Route, connecting Japan with Canada, the “TOPAZ” cable system, not touching China or the US.

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