PIPES

Cables and the

Extended Vectors

of the Cloud

global network of submarine communication cables

Facebook    Google    Amazon    Microsoft    all others

While globalization of capitalism has demanded ever more territorial expansion, the need to coordinate, control, and command this ever-expanding footprint has been manifested in the emergence of global communication as an essential service. This service is increasingly materialized in the cables and physical infrastructures of connectivity that quite literally wire the globe. These cables are the not-so-visible threads sewing the cloud into the ground. And as such they cannot be simply represented as vectors. Instead a more territorial and historically grounded reading of these networks would construct a much more extended landscape of data, and forms an important aspect of understanding the territorial logic that lays at the basis of the cloud. While the prevalent understanding of these networks as apolitical tubes or indifferent pipes still persists, the contextual dynamics of their rollout and the historically conditioned trajectory of their deployment has slowly begun to penetrate the critical sociopolitical imagination.

More recently, the growing bandwidth demand of cloud providers and the intense competition between them has entailed a shifting of balance towards the internalization of data flows within private networks as opposed to their transmission over typical internet backbones provided by telecoms. Once dominated by telecom companies, the global landscape of communication infrastructure now reflects the growing demands of the cloud, as the amalgamation of competing private data ecosystems. The bandwidth-use and the growing investment of “content providers”—otherwise known as cloud computing companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook—in communication infrastructure speaks to the expansionist aims of the cloud. Of the 443 Tbps international bandwidth used in 2016, 170 Tbps, or 38%, was deployed by cloud providers like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft. Even more telling, this share represents a 14-fold rise in the international capacity deployment of these companies within only four years, from 2012 to 2016.[1] Compared to the 3-fold rise of all other operators over the same period, this rapid rise is indicative of the growing domination of the cloud in global data traffic. The rapidly growing cloud capacity is mediated through private networks that tend to internalize the operations, and benefits, of the cloud—as opposed to externalizing them like public utilities. This is significant as the public internet’s share of bandwidth, which is dominated by major Internet Service Providers (ISPs), dropped from 80% in 2010 to less than 40% in 2019.[2] The general trend points towards a private network environment where the cloud mediates the majority of global data, making that data bound to its operational logic and its almost militarized shell.

share of bandwidth capacity used by different groups

adapted from Telegeography

In response to their growing need for internalized networks, cloud providers have recently increased investment in their own fiber optic cables. Google is now sole or part owner of fourteen submarine cable systems. In comparison, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon are either part owners or major capacity buyers of ten, four, and three submarine cables respectively. This trend is only on the rise, as companies compete to exert control on one of the remaining puzzle pieces of their data ecosystems . Reminiscent of the fiber optic rush in the 1990s which was propagated by the hype surrounding “the information superhighway,” the expansionist logic of the cloud has itself become a catalyst for development of more cable capacity, not necessarily dependent on other activities. This move is an important aspect of the cloud’s domination over user and urban data, which is now increasingly internalized within the blackboxes of private networks established by cloud providers and smart city purveyors.

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sole or partly owned cable systems by major tech corporations

data from Telegeography

The process of laying submarine cables is capital intensive and complex as it requires the coordination of a multitude of corporate and governmental actors for approvals and funding the project. Hence, the move towards internalized networks further strengthens the dominance of the cloud as it limits participation to only a few large corporations who have the pockets and the influence to realize these massive projects. As an example, Google has spent over $30 billion on its global infrastructure. Microsoft has shelled out $15 billion.[3] This infrastructural spending includes data centers and networks, which include submarine communication cables and other terrestrial projects, like Google Fiber.

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Cross section of a typical submarine cable

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process of laying submarine cables

Locating Virginia's cloud geography

While the myth that 70% of all internet traffic flows through Northern Virginia has been debunked, the area still represents a great concentration of cloud infrastructure and traffic. Most major tech companies have footprints in the region and the growth of the area's tech industry has built on a deep historical relationship between technology contractors and military and intelligence organizations. Amazon's decision to locate its second HQ in Northern Virginia is further testament to the strategic importance of the area for cloud companies that are vying for government contracts.

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Northern Virginia is a hot spot of data center activity globally. The data stored and processed in these data centers is transmitted via a dense and expansive network of submarine and terrestrial cables that extend the reach of the region's cloud prowess to the rest of the globe.

Given the significance of the cables that connect the region to the rest of the globe, it is perhaps surprising to find the landing station of the global submarine communication cables within the sleepy suburbs of Virginia Beach. However, upon closer look, the urban form and the geographic conditions of the area provide the perfect cover for this piece of critical infrastructure to hide in plain sight. 

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Submarine cable landing station in Virginia Beach. Signifying the importance of immediate and latency-free connection to the global cloud, the area within dashed line is slated for a massive data center development. Companies want to be ever closer to data taps. And it doesn't get closer than this.