Submarine communication cables serve as the primary conduit for global communication—phone calls, e-mails, web pages—and commerce. Despite the common misperception that satellites carry the main haul of global communications, the volume and nature of the traffic carried over submarine cables make its operational status critically important for a nation’s economic and national security. The Internet, over which the bulk of modern personal, commercial, and often sensitive transactions are transmitted, depends on this subterranean infrastructure. Taiwan’s geography and its location within the Asia-Pacific region make it the ideal regional conduit for the global Internet.
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC)—the independent agency in the United States responsible for regulating the communications sector—in its Submarine Cable Outage Notice referred to one estimate which states that undersea cables support nearly $10 trillion U.S. dollars in transactions each day. Moreover, submarine cables “carry over 95 percent of all U.S.-international voice and data traffic.” Other sources estimate that submarine cables carry 99 percent of such traffic. The FCC’s efforts to regulate network outage reporting by submarine cable operators reflect the importance of monitoring these vital arteries for global commerce and communication.
According to Nicole Starosielski, an undersea cable expert writing in the innovation and technology outlet Wired, “there are a little over 200 [submarine cable] systems that carry all of the internet traffic across the ocean, and these are by and large concentrated in very few areas. The cables end up getting funneled through these narrow pressure points all around the globe.” These bottlenecks, coupled with an aging infrastructure (the average commercial lifespan of subsea cables is reportedly 25 years) logically make countries that border the cables important for their maintenance and upkeep. Severed submarine cables could cause disruptions in voice and data services for residents and businesses—for weeks if not months—not only in one but multiple countries. One such “pressure point” is located around Taiwan.
For instance, a 2006 earthquake severed two undersea cables off the Taiwan coast and severely disrupted Internet access in Taiwan and throughout Asia. Services in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and even Europe were reportedly stalled by the outage. Financial transactions, particularly in the foreign exchange market were also affected. The transnational effects of severed or submarine cables highlight the importance of their upkeep and the role of littoral countries in ensuring that this infrastructure is properly protected and maintained.
There are 11 submarine cables (APCN, APCN-2, C2C, China-US CN, EAC, FLAG FEA, FNAL/FNAL, SMW3, TPE, TSE-1, and Cross Straits Cable Network) and four cable landing points on Taiwan (Tamsui, Pali, Toucheng and Fangshan). These submarine cables and the landing stations are integral components of the regional communications infrastructure. Taiwan’s location along the midpoint of the Asia-Pacific region can help to reduce latency between East and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the island’s close proximity to the bottlenecks makes it the ideal caretaker for the cables. The importance of Taiwan as a regional hub was apparently not lost on one of the world’s leading technology companies, Google, which built its largest data center in Taiwan and recently upgraded it to further increase its capacity.
While submarine cables may seem an obscure subject matter, policymakers and business decision makers should not turn a blind eye to their growing importance for the 21st century economy. Although private companies appear to be taking note of Taiwan’s role as a regional communications hub, policymakers should also pay closer attention to the island’s unleveraged role as a hub for the regional communications architecture.
The main point: Taiwan is an unleveraged node in the Asia-Pacific region’s communications infrastructure, which is integral to the area’s economic and national security.
Update: A previous version of the article excluded submarine cables between Taiwan and China in the total count of submarine cables connected to Taiwan.