While these are totally valid topics to explore, I often find these stories lacking in context about the various systems, geographies, and politics that shape submarine networks. While there are lots of other super compelling aspects of submarine-cable law and policy (says the person who owns a copy of Submarine Cables: The Handbook of Law and Policy), here are two questions that might help readers take in Telegeography takes with a little less gee-whiz and a little more clarity.
Who Owns Submarine Cables?
For the most part, Internet submarine cables are built by consortia of international companies. The consortium method has the advantage of distributing risk on submarine-cable projects, which can range in cost from the hundreds of millions to the low billions. When they first emerged, during the postcolonial Cold War era, these consortia were made up of telecoms from different countries forming agreements with each other. Ownership and maintenance of the cables was aligned along these landing sites—the parts of the cable that ran through the U.S. might belong to AT&T; the parts running through the U.K., maybe to BT.
In the late 1990s as the Internet became increasingly privately held, venture capital began participating in these consortia as well. Perhaps the most famous early example of this shift was the FLAG network, the subject of Neal Stephenson's essay “Mother Earth Mother Board” (arguably the Book of Genesis in the Internet-infrastructure nerd bible). Today, many kinds of non-telecoms invest in submarine cables, including companies like Google and Facebook, who both own stakes in Pacific submarine cables.
Military agencies also build submarine cables, which do not appear on public maps. While these cables have recently been the subject of much kerfuffle over whether they are vulnerable to Russian sabotage (which, while probably a possibility, featured such so much over-the-top panic in its speculations that it basically was only missing trained Russian spy sharks), military telecommunications networks have played a crucial but not extensively reported role in legal challenges to U.S. and U.K. drone-strike operations in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan.
In 2014, the U.K.-based organization Reprieve filed a complaint with the British government against BT for its role in facilitating drone strikes based on a submarine cable. In 2012, BT accepted a contract from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to connect a military base in the U.K. to a military base in Djibouti. The court threw out the complaint, ruling that Repreive presented insufficient evidence that the cable was explicitly used in drone strikes.
More recently, a Somali man brought a legal complaint to the German government over the role that the Ramstein Air Force base played in a drone strike that killed his father. Ramstein isn't a landing point for a submarine cable, but for a satellite uplink that connects directly to drones in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. A combination of submarine and terrestrial cables connects the uplink to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. While the Ramstein complaint is more about the uplink than the fiber, it and the Reprieve complaint are reminders of the scale of military network infrastructure, and the significance of that infrastructure in contemporary warfare.