Sustainable Subsea Networks is a research initiative of the SubOptic Foundation. We are investigating the sustainability of the global subsea telecommunications network, a system that transports almost 100% of transoceanic internet traffic. We are an academic-industry partnership, with members spanning the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, and China, and industry representation from both the supply and operational sectors.
Our first phase of the project, from 2021-2023, included three primary activities: generating a catalogue of sustainable practices, assembling a carbon footprint of a cable system, and investigating policy and regulation. In the second phase of the project, from 2023-2025, we will continue looking at best practices and assembling a carbon footprint of the subsea cable system, and will add to this an investigation of metrics for subsea cable sustainability.
Metrics for a Sustainable Subsea Cable
Our second phase of the project, begun in 2023, is the investigation of metrics. As a research collaboration between academic and subsea cable industry representatives, we are working to better understand what metrics are most appropriate for assessing the sustainability of a subsea cable. We are conducting a thorough investigation of relevant metrics for cable landing stations, marine operations, manufacturing, and recovery and recycling at end of life. Our publications and media discuss the possibilities and challenges of potential metrics.
A Catalogue of Best Practices
We are currently documenting the sustainability work already being undertaken across the industry. There is no centralized hub for sharing these environmental contributions, and companies often do not know what others are doing—and do not have models for increasing sustainability themselves. Our publications and media will offer the industry a report of both what has been done and what might be achieved in the future.
A Carbon Footprint
There have been numerous studies of the Internet's energy usage, but almost all of these leave out subsea cables. Our carbon footprint of the subsea network disaggregates subsea networks from this whole, and reveals how their minimal environmental cost might be leveraged to create a more environmental global internet. While a carbon footprint is not the only metric for understanding environmental impact, it is a crucial standard established for quantifying the contributions of industry stakeholders.
Prospects for Policy
Environmental regulation is on the horizon. As is true for many policies affecting the industry, this regulation is often crafted without much consideration for the unique features of subsea cables. We are proactively looking into recommendations for international, regional, and local law and policy that can incentivize greater sustainability and open new pathways for the adoption of renewable energy and improvement of energy efficiency.
This project seeks to make new contributions in enhancing the future sustainability of the global subsea cable network, which complements previous work led by the United Nations Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the International Cable Protection Committee. The 2009 UN WCMC-ICPC report "Submarine cables and the oceans: connecting the world" provides a valuable resource to focus and guide deliberations and decision making on the conservation and protection of the oceans in concert with their sustainable management and use.