Kevin Frazier


The protection of the undersea cable system, which carries the vast majority of the world’s Internet traffic, requires a new policy approach from the United States government. Old vulnerabilities and new threats have placed this critical piece of international infrastructure under increased threat of disruption and sabotage. Old vulnerabilities include the inherent difficulties associated with defending cables that lay along the open seafloor across international waters and the fragility of the cables themselves--often no larger than a garden hose. New threats come from climate change and changes in geopolitics. For example, Russia, among other nations, has made investments in offensive military equipment tailored to breaking undersea cables.

Though disruptions to Internet traffic through the undersea cable system can be diverted to satellites, that alternative comes with significant financial and temporal costs. Therefore, proactive policies to prevent cable breaks should receive substantial attention from political leaders. The weeks and millions of dollars required to repair broken cables further justify the prioritization of proactive policies to reduce the frequency of breaks.

This article explores why current international and domestic laws and policies meant to protect undersea cables fall short of what is needed to ensure the longevity and security of the undersea cable system. After an analysis of these various laws and policies, the article offers a series of steps the Biden Administration can take to improve the resilience of the undersea cable system, at least the parts of it connected to the United States.

These steps make theoretical sense and have received support from policy leaders on this topic--actually taking the steps, though, will require significant political capital. The majority of the undersea cable system is owned and operated by private stakeholders. The protection of the system necessitates extensive collaboration between private and public stakeholders. Because collaboration takes time and trust, this article comes at a critical moment -- it can help direct political energy toward this time-sensitive endeavor.