EU wants to make undersea internet cables more resilient

Threat to data means submarine infrastructures should get status of 'highest possible national significance'

The European Commission has issued recommendations to up the security and resilience of submarine data cables, but says private finance should fund projects to expand capacity, assisted by governments where necessary.

Released alongside a white paper analyzing Europe's digital infrastructure requirements, the recommendations encourage member states to undertake tasks including regular stress testing and sharing information.

There are no detailed procedures to follow, and the strategy calls for EU members to pay more attention to submarine infrastructure and perhaps help fund important projects.

The Commission notes that European economies and societies are increasingly reliant on the internet and international connectivity, and that submarine cable infrastructure is a significant element in this, as the vast majority of international data traffic is carried through these cables.

It also notes the infrastructure is vulnerable to sabotage and tampering, and says that Russia’s war against Ukraine has raised awareness of security, given its potential capability to disrupt cables and the suspicious monitoring activities carried out by Russian vessels, such as off the Irish coast.

The UK is not in the EU, but in 2022, a subsea cable connecting Shetland and the Faroe Islands was damaged, with a separate cable linking the two with the Scottish mainland being cut. Suspicion fell on a Russian research vessel in the area.

At a top level, the recommendations identify actions EU member states should take, also including any necessary improvements to the security of seabed cables, and to support the deployment or significant upgrade of submarine cable infrastructure serving the region.

On the security side, the Commission wants EU members to ensure the infrastructure is adequately managed and controlled so as to protect it from external threats, including that of data carried on the cables by collecting any necessary information from the owners or operators.

Individual states should conduct risk assessments on the cybersecurity and the physical security of submarine cables, and enforce obligations on suppliers and operators to ensure security.

The Commission wants to see the fast-tracking of applications relating to submarine cable infrastructure, for construction, operation, maintenance or repair work, and advises member states to “grant to submarine cable infrastructures the status of the highest possible national significance.”

To build out capacity, the Commission is seeking to compile a draft list of strategic projects - Cable Projects of European Interest (CPEIs). These may be considered for support through EU programs and complemented with national funds to fill strategic gaps and establish new connections, it says.

When it comes to financing, the Commission reckons that CPEIs should be funded by private finance, which may be supported where necessary and appropriate by EU programs.

However, it also says that member states are encouraged to consider contributing, where necessary and appropriate, to the financing of CPEIs, in accordance with state aid rules.

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The recommendations were welcomed by one company involved in the submarine cable industry, EXA Infrastructure.

Chief operating officer Ciaran Delaney said: “Submarine cables are like the internet’s main arteries, carrying data around the world, so it’s only natural that the EU Commission is looking at ways to secure these vital pieces of infrastructure.”

On the recommendations relating to EU member states supporting cable infrastructure, Delaney said: “Private investment is flowing into the subsea industry all the time to create more diverse paths from A to B and provide resiliency should a specific cable be damaged, but any legislative support to make upgrading and securing network infrastructure easier is welcomed.” ®

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