Google makes billions from its cloud platform. Now it’s using those billions to buy up the internet itself — or at least the submarine cables that make up the internet backbone.
In February, the company announced its intention to move forward with the development of the Curie cable, a new undersea line stretching from California to Chile. It will be the first private intercontinental cable ever built by a major non-telecom company.
And if you step back and just look at intracontinental cables, Google has fully financed a number of those already; it was one of the first companies to build a fully private submarine line.
Google isn’t alone. Historically, cables have been owned by groups of private companies — mostly telecom providers — but 2016 saw the start of a massive submarine cable boom, and this time, the buyers are content providers. Corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon all seem to share Google’s aspirations for bottom-of-the-ocean dominance.
I’ve been watching this trend develop, being in the broadband space myself, and the recent movements are certainly concerning. Big tech’s ownership of the internet backbone will have far-reaching, yet familiar, implications. It’s the same old consumer tradeoff; more convenience for less control — and less privacy.
We’re reaching the next stage of internet maturity; one where only large, incumbent players can truly win in media.
Consumers will soon need to decide exactly how much faith they want to place in these companies to build out the internet of tomorrow. We need to decide carefully, too; these are the same companies that are gaining access to a seemingly ever-increasing share of our private lives.
Walling off the garden
If you want to measure the internet in miles, fiber-optic submarine cables are the place to start. These unassuming cables crisscross the ocean floor worldwide, carrying 95-99 percent of international data over bundles of fiber-optic cable strands the diameter of a garden hose. All told, there are more than 700,000 miles of submarine cables in use today.
While past cable builders leveraged cable ownership to sell bandwidth, content providers are building purposefully private cables.
The internet is commonly described as a cloud. In reality, it’s a series of wet, fragile tubes, and Google is about to own an alarming number of them. The numbers speak for themselves; Google will own 10,433 miles of submarine cables internationally when the Curie cable is completed later this year.
The total shoots up to 63,605 miles when you include cables it owns in consortium with Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon. Including these part-owned cables, the company has enough submarine infrastructure to wrap around the earth’s equator two-and-a-half times (with thousands of cable miles to spare).
The impetus for Google’s submarine projects
This submarine cable boom makes more sense when you look at the growth of traffic that’s taken place in the past decade.
In the Atlantic and Pacific, content providers accounted for over half of total demand in 2017. Content provider data use has skyrocketed from less than eight percent to near 40 percent in the past 10 years.
It should be noted here that stats are significantly lower in Africa and the Middle East, suggesting that developed nations hunger for video content and cloud apps are a driver of the trend. This is supported by overall international bandwidth use between countries. In 2017, India only used 4,977 Mbps of international bandwidth. The U.S. used a staggering 4,960,388 Mbps that same year.
The cost of privatized infrastructure
Like the removal of Net Neutrality, privatizing internet infrastructure has only reduced prices for consumers. The problem we now face is a moral one: Do we want a private internet? Or do we want to preserve the “Wild West” web that we’ve had to this point?
Unfortunately, the question isn’t as simple as drawing a line between “good” and “bad” network optimizations. Practices like edge networking and zero-rating are critical to the business models of companies like Netflix and AT&T — they also don’t technically violate the rules, and ultimately deliver much better services to consumers.
As we look to the future, we need to start asking ourselves what the internet is really going to look like whenever the content services that already command so much of our attention are in control of the internet backbone as well. Privatized infrastructure may bring untold benefits for consumers in the short run, but is there a cost we aren’t considering?
Tyler Cooper is the consumer policy expert and editor at BroadbandNow. He has more than a decade of experience in IT and networking, and has been writing about broadband issues such as the digital divide, net neutrality, cybersecurity, and internet access since 2015.