EU plans Black Sea internet cable to reduce reliance on Russia

    CULTURE  13 May 2023 - 15:45

    The EU is planning an undersea internet cable to improve connectivity to Georgia and reduce dependence on lines running through Russia, amid growing concerns about vulnerabilities to infrastructure transmitting global data.

    The €45 million cable will link EU member states to the Caucasus via international waters in the Black Sea, stretching a span of 1,100 km. The project aims to reduce the region’s “dependency on terrestrial fibre-optic connectivity transiting via Russia”, the European Commission said in a policy document, according to Financial Times.

    The EU and Georgia jointly identified the need for the Black Sea internet cable in 2021 to improve Georgia’s digital connectivity. However, the war in Ukraine has added impetus to the project, given the need to avoid relying on “connections that are not secure or stable”, said a person with knowledge of the proposal.

    Internet cables have come under scrutiny because of global concerns around espionage, as land-based lines and the stations where submarine cables come ashore are seen as vulnerable to interception by governments, hackers and thieves.
    Concerns around intentional sabotage of undersea cables and other maritime infrastructure have also grown since multiple explosions on the Nord Stream gas pipelines last September, which media reports recently linked to Russian vessels. Two cables off the coast of Norway were cut in 2021 and 2022, sparking concerns about malicious attacks.

    Global tensions over physical infrastructure are not limited to concerns about Russia. China has begun to impede projects to lay and maintain subsea internet cables through the South China Sea as Beijing seeks to assert more control over the infrastructure. Industry insiders say several countries have become more defensive of their territorial waters.

    Taiwanese authorities recently blamed Chinese fishing and cargo vessels for severing two internet cables connecting Taiwan’s main island to one of its smaller islands. Most cable damage is accidental and usually caused by fishing equipment or anchors.

    The Black Sea cable project is part of the European Commission’s Global Gateway initiative. It aims to offer developing countries an alternative to Beijing’s wide-ranging strategic funding of physical and digital infrastructure around the world, known as the Belt and Road initiative and Digital Silk Road initiative, respectively. The European Investment Bank has proposed a €20 million grant for the Black Sea cable project.

    A commission spokesperson said improving data connections with the EU was a “top priority” for Georgia, and the bloc’s investment in the cable project was “in line with the objectives of the Global Gateway strategy”.

    The project is currently in the feasibility assessment stage and bidding is not currently open.

    Vodafone is also exploring the possibility of developing a cable route across the Black Sea, according to two people briefed on the plan. The project, called Kardessa, would connect Ukraine to Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia and then continue under land to Armenia, Kazakhstan and onwards to Asia.

    “You need as many routes as possible in key points of vulnerability,” said a person with knowledge of the project, on which Vodafone is currently consulting potential suppliers. “Russia is one because of the political situation at the moment.” Vodafone declined to comment.

    There are some significant internet arteries running through Russia. For example, the so-called Dream cable runs for 8,700km across Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and China and is majority-owned by Russian operator MegaFon. Another, called Europe-Russia-Asia, sends data between Hong Kong and Frankfurt via Russia in about 156 milliseconds.

    Kaan Terzioğlu, chief executive of Netherlands-headquartered telecoms group Veon, which is selling its Russian assets, said terrestrial networks through Russia are an important conduit for international connectivity to Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. “Relying on one single terrestrial network is never a good idea,” he said.

    The EU is also planning a separate electricity cable under the Black Sea as part of the Global Gateway programme, connecting Hungary and Romania to Georgia and Azerbaijan, to reinforce the bloc’s “security of supply”.


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