Internet access in the overseas territories: the danger of submarine cables

Virtually all digital exchanges and worldwide internet data run via one technology: fiber optic, land or sea. However, the heightening of geopolitical tensions around the world highlights the risks our societies face from having all our internet exchanges deployed on one system, at the risk of blocking communications, especially between islands and continents, between overseas territories and France.

This is the worst-case scenario feared by the French authorities and officials of the various Overseas Territories: that an enemy force cuts one or more submarine cables connecting France to the Overseas Territories.

Submarine cables have become essential to the functioning of society and the global economy as they carry more than 98% of international communications, that is, the calls we make to internationals and the data we consult when we go to sites that are hosted on servers abroad.

Camille Morel, International Relations Researcher

For Camille Morel, a researcher in international relations at Jean Moulin Lyon III University and at the Center for Strategic Naval Studies (CESM), an attack on submarine cables would affect our lives because “almost all our daily activities, as citizens, social networks, but also banks, companies, who put their data online, administrations” pass through these means of communication.

Another concern: espionage or looting of information passing through these cables. In contrast, while most of these digital records are of little value—that’s all Internet traffic for individuals—the others are much more strategic and important to world powers, who don’t hesitate to deploy military resources, spy, manipulate or destabilize a country. . “Connectivity will be affectedsays Camille Morel. It will slow down or stop. On the other hand, I think we would see more of a financial impact and an impact in connectivity in general, in connectivity with social networks”but no significant impact.

The internet is a real-time global interconnection that today relies on a single network: fiber optic, which is fully deployed all over the world, including abroad. More than 420 marine cables deploying this technology travel the world through the seabeds. They connect countries with each other and France with its overseas territories.

When a cable is cut, very often for natural or human reasons (earthquake or boat trawls, for example), the areas redirect the data to another cable. Abroad, however, three areas have only one: New Caledonia (which launched the construction of a second cable in March), Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and Wallis and Futuna. The only alternative is to send sensitive data through space using satellites.

We can use both geostationary satellites, that is, satellites that are very high, just above a land, and that are not moving. But the data transport times are relatively high, in other words, you don’t have real time, just a small delay. Or we could have a fleet of satellites in low Earth orbit. In this case, the communication times are low, giving you real real-time internet.

Philippe Baptiste, President of the National Center for Space Studies (CNES)

This is what is at stake with the web microsatellite constellations currently deployed by several states. Despite this complex geostrategic context, it generally only takes ten days for operators to resolve a fault or cut in a submarine cable. Once the site of intervention is found, grabs are sent from the bottom to salvage the pieces, weld them aboard a cable vessel and allow the flow of digital communications to return to normal.

Look at the topic of Jean-Michel Mazerolle, Albane Lussien and François Brauge:

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