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March 30, 2021updated 03 Dec 2021 9:45am

Facebook plans new subsea cables from US to Singapore – but not China

By Lewis Page

Facebook has come up with new plans for subsea cable links spanning the Pacific to Indonesia, after plans for direct US-China connection were blocked by the US government last year.

The new cables, dubbed “Bifrost” and “Echo” by the web giant, will run from the US West Coast across the Pacific via Guam and then through the Celebes Sea (Bifrost) and Banda Sea (Echo) via the Java Sea to Singapore, one of the main undersea cable junctions and tech hubs of the Far East.

Facebook refers to this plan as “a new diverse route crossing the Java Sea”, but in fact the area does have a number of submarine cables already. The Indonesian Global Gateway (IGG) cable, operational since 2018, spans the Celebes and Java seas as Bifrost will, connecting various important Indonesian landing points with Singapore. There are other local festoons linking local cities, and there is a transpacific connection from the northern Celebes and the Phillipines, the SEA-US cable which went live in 2017.

But at the moment, many landing points in the Java Sea are connected to just one or two cables. The arrival of two new transpacific lines should mean a lot more people connected via three cables, and (crucially) triple links to the USA, the heart of the global internet, and triple-or-better options for Singapore.

Almost all the world’s backbone data traffic goes by undersea fibre at the moment, with no real chance that satellites will change this situation at least in the medium term. But submarine cables get broken all the time by bad weather, ship’s anchors and other things, so web giants like Facebook regard three cables as the minimum for doing serious business with a region.

Facebook has recently partnered with Indonesian telco Alita to deploy 3,000 km of fibre across cities in Bali, Java, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi, and has also delivered wireless connection options in the region. The web giant has also recently built an enormous new data centre in Singapore, which it describes as “a candidate for the world’s largest data centre under one roof”.

Indonesians all around the Java, Celebes and Banda seas are rapidly getting onto the internet. According to GlobalData Technology’s latest quarterly report and forecast into Mobile Broadband in Indonesia, 47% of Indonesians had access to 4G data services in 2019 and this is set to climb to 80% in 2024. According to GlobalData’s latest quarterly figures for Indonesia fixed connections, 68% of Indonesians can now access the internet at work or at home and this will climb to 89% in 2024.

Facebook wants all those end-user connections across the region to work properly both to Singapore and the US, because that means that it can reliably reach more people with its own services.

It may need to hustle, as others are there already. Local tech unicorns Gojek and Tokopedia are reportedly in merger talks, which if successful could lead to the appearance of a true, Chinese-style “super app” in Indonesia. Super apps like WeChat and Alipay offer every conceivable web and internet service on one platform, so that their users require no other app on their devices. Where a Westerner might have a banking app or two, different messengers for different purposes, games from various developers, a favourite food delivery app, a taxi/ride-hail app, a shopping app and – possibly – Facebook, a WeChat user just has WeChat.

So Facebook’s motivations in building Bifrost and Echo are clear enough: but it does seem odd that having laid cable all the way across the Pacific there is no aspiration to reach China and all its billions of people.

In fact both Facebook and Google had previously planned a US-China cable, the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), intended to run from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. But the PLCN ran into trouble against the background of the Trump administration’s trade war with China, which looks set to continue under President Biden. US inter-agency committee Team Telecom, which examines and regulates foreign involvement in US telecommunications, formally objected to the Hong Kong end of the connection last June. The federal authorities noted that while Google and Facebook were the headline backers of the project, four of the six fibre pairs in the cable were ultimately owned by Dr Peng Group, the fourth largest telco in the People’s Republic and a company firmly under the control of Beijing.

Team Telecom noted that the new Pacific Light cable, with its low latency compared to legacy lines, would tend to attract data traffic and result in communication between the US and other south-east Asian nations routing through China when it had not previously done so. This would allow the Chinese intelligence services to sift the resulting flows for information.

If that sounds far-fetched, it should be borne in mind that data-mining of international undersea lines is a routine practice among major intelligence agencies. Britain’s GCHQ, for instance, is known to use huge amounts of compute power to trawl through traffic which passes through the UK, regardless of who may own the cables, and the British agency even has a secret overseas data centre in Oman which reads and sifts most of the undersea traffic passing in and out of the Arabian Gulf. There can’t be any real doubt that China would do the same with data landing in its own territory, and as a result the Pacific Light cable doesn’t seem likely ever to go beyond Taiwan and the Philippines.

Echo and Bifrost, however, “will increase overall transpacific capacity by 70 percent” according to Facebook, and the new plans seem unlikely to upset Team Telecom. Strengthened links between south-east Asia and America which leave China out in the cold will probably play well in today’s Washington atmosphere.