Dark days for the Pacific Light Cable Network

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Sep 5, 2019

Cable Ship Rene Descartes © Flickr/cc-licence/Mark Stainton

Cable Ship Rene Descartes © Flickr/cc-licence/Mark Stainton

  • New 144 Tbps link between Hong Kong and Los Angeles may not come into use
  • US tensions with China could see the Facebook/Google initiative left lying idle at the bottom of the sea
  • DOJ's "Team Telecom" say Chinese partner links to the government of the PRC are "too close"
  • Cites national security issues to deny licence to complete cable construction

As the trade and tariff war between the US and China continues to escalate and the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong (now in their 14th week and counting) continue as violence flares and tensions mount, the American Department of Justice, citing national security concerns, is seriously considering denying the necessary approval that would see the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN) lit and in commercial operation.

The PLCN is an 8,000 mile-long fibre-optic submarine between Hong Kong and the US West Coast city of Los Angeles. The principal backers behind the deployment of the new cable were/are Facebook and Google and a private Chinese telco rejoicing in the name of Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group Co, which is the fourth biggest telco in the People's Republic.

The stated aim of the laying of the cable was/is to improve broadband Internet access speeds between the United States and China. However the Huawei affair still resonates and tensions between the Chinese government and the Trump administration are at an all-time high. Since 1997, when the British left their Far Eastern outpost, Hong Kong has enjoyed the status been a Special Administrative Region maintaining governmental and economic systems separate to those pertaining in mainland China. That state of affairs was supposed to last for 50 years but Hong-Kongers believe that after 22 years the PRC is interfering more and more in Hong Kong's affairs with the intent of imposing Beijing's political will on the former UK colony.

Given the edgy and deteriorating relationship between the US government and the Chinese authorities the Department of Justice has set up what is described as "a multi-agency panel" they call "Team Telecom" the members of which believe that Dr Peng has close links to the powers-that-be in the PRC and is not to be trusted. Team Telecom's objections synchronise nicely with the final stages of the construction of the new cable and the pending expiry, later in September, of the permit for the build.

The construction of the PLCN has cost many millions of dollars and although the spend is little more than pocket change to Facebook and Google, should completion of the final stage of the cable be halted because of the lack of a build and operate licence, the pressure will be on Facebook and Google to kow-tow to any restrictions that the US government might impose on the PLCN. It wouldn't be the first time such a thing has happened but it would be the first time a subsea cable link has been denied permission to operate because of national security concerns.

The PLCN, which will be the first direct cable link from Hong Kong to the mainland US is long-planned and construction is all but complete. It will operate, if it operates, in both the C-band and L-band and will have a capacity of 144 Tbps. The main span runs between Hong Kong and Los Angeles but Facebook paid for the deployment of an extra festoon to the Philippines and Google stumped-up for another branch out to Taiwan (and, of course, Taiwan is a long-standing bone of contention between mainland China and the US).

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