The EU plans to build an internet cable in the Arctic to connect Europe with Asia
The European Commission is considering funding the construction of a fiber optic cable to connect Europe to Asia via the Arctic and avoid existing bottlenecks, two European officials familiar with the matter told EURACTIV on condition of anonymity.
The consortium behind the Far North Fiber project consists of Alaskan company Far North Digital and Finnish company Cinia. The cable would be 14,000 km long, connecting Scandinavia and Ireland to Japan across the Arctic, with departure points in Greenland, Canada and Alaska.
The company Cinia originally designed the project in 2018 in cooperation with the Russian telecom operator MegaFon and guided it through the North Sea Route. The deal was scrapped last year amid rising geopolitical tensions with Moscow. For its part, Russia is preparing to launch its own cable in the Arctic, the Polar Express, in 2026.
The infrastructure plan was therefore reconfigured in December 2021 to cross the North Sea Route and investors are being sought to fund an estimated total cost of US$1.15 billion.
Traversing the Arctic would also mean the cable would be shorter than existing cables, reducing what is known as data latency, or the time it takes for information to travel from one point to another.
“It would be a very expensive cable and its commercial viability is uncertain. Reducing latency alone does not determine whether a cable will be built.”said Alan Mauldin, director of research at TeleGeography, a telecommunications market research firm.
The current geopolitical tensions could speak in favor of the project. European politicians actually see it as a strategic asset.
The cable would be the first to connect Europe to Asia without passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal, a critical bottleneck for internet infrastructure and international trade. Following the recent sabotage of the North Stream gas pipeline, believed to be of Russian origin, Brussels is increasingly suspicious of these single points of failure.
Italian company Sparkle is already building a cable that will bypass the Suez Canal through Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. However, this project does not solve the problem of dependence on the geopolitical context of a single region.
Last week, for the first time, the European Commission presented the representatives of the EU states with the idea of co-financing the “Fibre du Grand Nord” («Fiber in the Far North»).
The EU intends to present it as one of the most important achievements of transatlantic cooperation at the next EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TCC) ministerial meeting in December.
However, according to EURACTIV information, Washington’s support is not confirmed as the United States is not yet convinced that this connection is a strategic priority for them.
militarization of the Arctic
The project would be part of a broader context of the militarization of the Arctic, a region that is causing increasing geopolitical tensions as melting glaciers reveal new strategic trade routes and resource reserves.
Last year, the EU adopted its first “Arctic Strategy,” which also refers to investments in connectivity and critical infrastructure, reflecting growing concerns about geopolitical tensions in the Arctic, as China, Russia and the United States are already fighting over it to exert their influence in the region.
“Critical infrastructure is the new war front and the EU will be prepared”said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday (10 October) at the Digital Summit in Tallinn.
In fact, the disruption of sea networks dates back to World War I, when one of the first acts of the British was to destroy Germany’s undersea telegraph cable, cutting it off from global communications and establishing the first surveillance system on a planetary scale.
“We obviously see that we are more vulnerable today”, the second EU official told EURACTIV. He pointed out that the issue had been neglected for a long time, but now many EU countries, especially in northern Europe, are pushing for the diversification of their submarine cables.
France, Europe’s military heavyweight, is currently strengthening its deep-sea capabilities as part of a military program aimed at countering hybrid threats to underwater telecommunications infrastructure.
The Arctic fiber optic cable could also have a military dimension, since in the event of an escalation the military infrastructure would be targeted first.
During the last plenary debate in the European Parliament, Ms. von der Leyen presented a five-point plan to strengthen the security of critical underwater infrastructure. A fundamental element is the use of satellite systems to monitor ship traffic.
A major European Space Agency station, linked to its Galileo satellite system, is located in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. In January, the submarine cables connecting Norway’s Svalbard satellite station to the mainland were severed.
A few months earlier, an underwater sensor network at the Norwegian Ocean Observatory had also been disrupted, raising suspicions of sabotage. In this case, too, Russia was the prime suspect, as it is one of the few countries with such capabilities.
As the European satellite system is expected to play an essential role in monitoring critical maritime infrastructure, its disruption would seriously hamper the EU’s ability to respond.
The European Space Agency did not respond to EURACTIV’s question about how the sabotage of seabed communications would affect the operation of the Galileo satellite system. The European Commission and the company Far North Digital also did not comment at the time of publication.
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