Considering how much attention has been paid to Washington’s lobbying efforts to keep Huawei’s technology out of the 5G networks of America’s European allies, the Chinese telecoms giant’s increasingly successful efforts to colonize the ocean floor – still one of the most vital conduits for digital information – has gone almost unheeded.
But that’s about to change. Nikkei Asian Review published a story on Friday detailing Huawei’s progress in building out its fiber-optic infrastructure, even as the major players mostly based in the US and Japan have yet to take notice of the Chinese upstart, slowly wresting away the west’s dominance of such a critical market.
There are nearly 400 known submarine cables snaking across the world’s seabeds. Whenever emails or digital files are sent from one continent to another, the signals pass through these wires. Countries also operate an untold number of secret underwater cables for military purposes.
The leader in the global undersea cable market is SubCom of the U.S. Japan’s NEC and Europe’s Alcatel Submarine Networks rank second and third. Taken together, these three companies have laid over 90% of the world’s total known cable length.
But Huawei, which has been blacklisted by the Trump administration and has become the poster child for the U.S.-China trade war, is chipping away at the West’s control of the market.
Huawei entered the business about a decade ago by setting up a joint venture with the British company Global Marine Systems. And since then, it has been chipping away at the West’s control of the market.
About a decade ago, Huawei entered the business by setting up a joint venture with British company Global Marine Systems. It expanded its presence by laying short links in regions like Southeast Asia and the Russian Far East. But last September, Huawei surprised industry executives in Japan, the U.S. and Europe by completing a 6,000 km trans-Atlantic cable linking Brazil with Cameroon.
By 2020, Huawei will have completed 20 new cables, mostly short-term in length. But over the long term, it could emerge as something to be reckoned with.
During the 2015-2020 period, Huawei is expected to complete 20 new cables – mostly short ones of less than 1,000 km. Even when these are finished, Huawei’s market share will be less than 10%. Over the long term, however, the company could emerge as a player to be reckoned with.
The company is involved in 30 more undersea cable projects, and also has a hand in about 60 others. And even if the US succeeds in thwarting Huawei’s plans to become a leader in 5G, little can be done to stop Huawei from becoming a leader in the handling of global web traffic.
In just a decade, Huawei has managed to challenge western players in terms of distance. And as Beijing pushes BRI-related initiatives, Huawei could see its advantage widen.
First, in only a decade, Huawei has been able to challenge Western players on distance. In addition to the Brazil-Cameroon cable, the Chinese giant is building links between Pakistan and Kenya and between Djibouti and France.
Second, Huawei already has highly competitive technologies for land-based telecommunications infrastructure. It can capitalize on this know-how to supply submarine repeaters, or devices that restore the waning strength of light signals en route, and transmission equipment at landing stations.
Whatever happens, it will be difficult for the West to stop to curb Huawei’s ambitions, seeing as the demand for new underwater cables is soaring more quickly than could possibly be met by the established players.
It is virtually impossible to completely exclude Chinese companies from international infrastructure development, and it would be unwise to try to do so. With data traffic soaring, there is huge demand for new underwater cables in the Asia-Pacific region, and it would be difficult for the big industry powers to meet this demand alone.
So forget 5G: The next battle for telecommunications supremacy won’t be fought in the air. It’ll be fought on the ocean floor.