Two submarine cables connecting Lienchiang County to Taiwan proper were damaged by Chinese boats at the beginning of this month. The incident not only leaves county residents without stable Internet and telephone service, it raises national security concerns that Taiwan and its outlying islands could easily be “disconnected” from the world in a military blockade or due to sabotage.
The Taima No. 2 cable connecting the county to New Taipei City and the Taima No. 3 cable connecting it to Taoyuan were damaged on Feb. 2 by a Chinese fishing boat and on Feb. 8 by a cargo ship respectively. Chunghwa Telecom Co said the cables would not be fully repaired until the end of April, as it awaits an international maintenance ship to repair the broken undersea communication lines.
The cables around the county have been damaged nine times in the past two years — mostly by Chinese boats.
The most recent incidents expose the fragility of undersea cables, which are vital parts of national infrastructure. Repairing one cable costs NT$10 million to NT$20 million (US$328,785 to US$657,570), in addition to the operation of a maintenance ship, which costs US$40,000 per day.
There are more than 450 cables across the ocean floor, responsible for nearly all transoceanic digital communications. Taiwan relies on 14 such cables, which are connected at landing stations in three areas: New Taipei City’s Tamsui District (淡水) in the north, Yilan County’s Toucheng Township (頭城) in the east and Pingtung County’s Fangshan Township (枋山) in the south.
In a report published last year, the Mercatus Center of George Mason University said that China’s military has planned extensive scenarios for invading Taiwan, and new evidence has revealed that China could focus on economic centers, potential military sites and submarine cable landing stations, such as the one in Tamsui, which had been tracked by a Chinese entity. The evidence suggests a heightened risk to international trade and digital flows with and through Taiwan, and that “disconnecting” the nation would affect many major economies around the world.
“Undersea cables are a serious Achilles’ heel to Taiwan,” Taiwan Network Information Center chief executive Kenny Huang (黃勝雄) told Bloomberg last year.
Ensuring the security of undersea communication systems could be a challenge for Taiwan, and improving “digital resilience” is an indispensable part of the nation’s self-defense.
Without the undersea cables, Chunghwa Telecom can only maintain Internet service between Taiwan proper and Lienchiang County through a microwave backup system, which transmits signals from a ground station in Taipei. To meet the efficiency and speed of undersea cables, the bandwidth and rate of data transmission of microwaves need to be substantially expanded.
Following Russia’s invasion, Ukraine has been using Starlink satellite broadband service to extend Internet access into occupied areas. Minister of Digital Affairs Audrey Tang (唐鳳) has said that Taiwan could build more than 700 receiving points to improve access to middle and low Earth orbit (LEO) communication satellites. The ministry also announced that it would open spectrum license applications for LEO satellites, to encourage Taiwanese companies to work with international satellite service providers for on-air channels exploration.
In the long term, the government should also provide more support and resources to accelerate the Taiwan Space Agency’s 10-year plan to develop indigenous LEO communication satellites.
Tang said that “keeping Taiwan in high-quality communication with the world in real time” is critical. More alternative telecommunication systems should be developed and expedited.
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