Internet connection: “European telecom operators are becoming Gafam service providers”

Pascal Griset is a professor of contemporary history at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. Director of the Center for Research in the History of Innovation, he is coordinator of the Horizon 2020 program on science diplomacy, which brings together fifteen research and teaching institutions from eleven European countries.

When did the United States realize that submarine telecommunications cables served their political and economic influence?

American politicians only became aware of the importance of these cables during the war against Spain in Cuba in 1898, long after the telegraph companies. But, as early as the 1880s, Western Union and Postal Telegraph understood the power of submarine telecom lines. To sell transatlantic links to their American customers, they sign agreements with their British and German counterparts, who then dominate the telegraph world and deploy their own lines. As a result, on the eve of the First World War, almost all transatlantic telegraph cables were American.

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A second American wave broke after the Second World War, under the effect of the Free Flow of Information, a concept of news publishers promoting the freedom of flow of information, which later became official American doctrine. Finally, if the nature of the information transported by the submarine cables has changed, these ancient periods show a great analogy with the current domination of the Gafam [Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon et Microsoft].

Can technological innovation challenge this domination?

History has shown that innovation can be a game changer. In the 1920s, the appearance of short waves made cables almost obsolete and gave voice to the European camp. The arrival of commercial satellites from the 1960s also brought a halt to submarine cables, unable at that time to transport images.

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It was the arrival of fiber optics in the 1980s that put them back in the running. But these back and forths have helped build complementarity between wired and wireless technologies. The British understood this strategic issue very early on by pushing for the merger in 1929 of two of their national flagships, the Eastern Telegraph Company and the Wireless Telegraph Company, a subsidiary of Marconi, to create Cable & Wireless. Thus, the arrival of new technologies like that of Starlink [un fournisseur d’accès à Internet par un réseau de satellites] will not take the cables out of the game but will probably reinforce the complementarity of the solutions.

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Internet connection: “European telecom operators are becoming Gafam service providers”

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