US and Australia Jointly Fund Pacific Islands Internet Undersea Cable

By Colin Clark

SYDNEY — Two titans of the tech world, Google and Microsoft, announced major investments on Tuesday in the Indo-Pacific, focused on improving internet speeds, connectivity and security for Australia.

In particular, the announcement about a new Google effort, tied to Australian Prime Anthony Albanese’s visit to the White House, serves as a tangible sign of the effort Washington and Canberra are putting forth to strengthen relations with a series of small islands that are in a political tug-of-war between the west and China.

Google has committed to build two new trans-Pacific cables — called Honomoana and Tabua — as part of a “South Pacific Connect initiative” that strips China of a chance to make major strategic inroads by tying the region to Huawei cables. The lines will connect Fiji and French Polynesia with cabled internet that runs from the US, through the islands, and to Australia.

While Google’s name will naturally draw eyeballs, there are other companies involved, per a White House Fact Sheet: “Together our countries plan to invest a total of $65 million in support of enhancing secure, resilient connectivity in the Pacific Islands by working with Google, APTelecom, and Hawaiki Nui to provide branching units for the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tuvalu and Vanuatu,” the White House document said.

For its part, Microsoft committed to investing $5 billion AUD ($3 billion USD) to expand its cloud computing capacity in the Lucky Country by 250 percent, a company statement said. More importantly, from a defense point of view, the Seattle-based company said today that it “will collaborate with the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) on an initiative called the Microsoft-Australian Signals Directorate Cyber Shield (MACS), aimed at improving protection from cyber threats for Australian residents, businesses and government entities. As part of this partnership, Microsoft will work with ASD to build fit-for-purpose, next-generation cybersecurity solutions.”

Few details were available about the security portions of the Microsoft investment, made entirely by the company. But it was substantial enough to attract comment by Albanese: “A strong economy requires protection from cyber threats. I welcome Microsoft’s collaboration with the Australian Signals Directorate to enhance cybersecurity for households and business.”

Australia will provide $50 million through a government-backed fund called the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific to support future primary and redundancy connectivity options for Pacific Island countries.

This all takes place as the contest between the United States and China for influence throughout the Pacific continues to heat up, The investment by Australia and the United States into funding the new Google cables means the Pacific islands don’t need to become integral parts of China’s global data collection.

“The US and Australia are offering an alternative to China’s initiatives in the digital and telecommunications sector; Pacific countries would prefer higher quality infrastructure and technology from trusted partners, but in the absence of other options, they will settle for what’s made available to them — particularly if it comes at a lower cost,” Mihai Sora, an expert on the Pacific islands at the Lowy Institute, said in an email.

“This will be welcome news for Pacific countries and is a good move by the US and Australia. Enhancing digital connectivity in Pacific Island Countries is not just about cables and internet speeds. It is also about geopolitics, regional influence, economic development, and security.”

What Google’s Pacific Plan Looks Like

In a blog post about the initiative, Brian Quigley, the VP for global network infrastructure at Google Cloud, described the overall approach as creating “a ring between Australia, Fiji and French Polynesia. This ring will include pre-positioned branching units that will allow other countries and territories of Oceania to take advantage of the reliability and resilience resulting from the initiative … This is one of the first projects of its kind in the Pacific, providing the ability to bring redundant international connectivity to a region that is susceptible to natural disasters.”

Pacific island governments often rely on satellite internet, which is expensive and pretty slow compared to optic fiber cables. It causes considerable friction on basic country-to-country communication, because government officials are harder to reach and often slower to respond to events. It also means that in the event of major storms, earthquakes tsunamis and other natural disasters — the kind of events those nations are experiencing on a more regular basis — the islands are often cut off from most contact with the outside world.

Google Pacific Islands cable investment map. (Google)

Sora pointed out that even countries with undersea cables don’t always have easy access to them for their own uses: “There are huge gaps in connectivity across the Pacific … And even those Pacific countries that are connected by undersea cables don’t have broad national access to this infrastructure — this is due to a combination of geography and the prohibitively high prices charged by local wholesalers.”

But the Google cables won’t fix everything. “By branching out submarine cables to more Pacific countries, the initiative ameliorates but doesn’t altogether solve a significant digital divide between the Pacific and the global economy,” he said.

An expert who’s studied the trans-Pacific cable system raised questions about whether Google would provide bandwidth to communities that might not be able to pay enough to provide the tech giant with a profit.

Map of Pacific Island cables as of 2021 (Amanda Watson of Australian National University)

“I would say that I’m also not clear on Google’s investments into this or expected returns are they going to be running, given that these are small populations. Are they going to be running at a loss in these spaces and expecting to be subsidised by the donors,” wondered Amanda Watson, a research fellow at Australia National University in Canberra, “or are they planning to subsidise these operations themselves in a kind of goodwill gesture, drawing from profits from elsewhere around the globe?”

She noted there’s been “no real change in price” for internet access in Papua New Guinea and the Solomons Islands since cables were laid to them. When you have a small market in a small country it’s easy for there to be “challenges” with the manner in which the markets and telecommunications regulators are structured, she said.

This article was published by Breaking Defense on October 26, 2023.