On the island of Guam in the middle of the Pacific, 6,100 miles west of Los Angeles and about 1,600 miles southeast of Japan, life moves pretty slowly. But soon, that will be in direct contrast to its internet, which will be lightning-fast.
At least that’s what Guam-based telecommunications company GTA Teleguam is hoping. A new set of undersea internet cables will be laid both east and west of Guam over the next year or so. When it’s done, not only will GTA be able to provide super-fast internet connections for Guam’s 165,000 residents and businesses, but it may also speed up the digital connections between customers in Asia and data centers in the US.
The physical structure of the internet consists of hundreds of undersea fiber-optic cables that crisscross the globe. As more people come online and do things that require lots of bandwidth, like stream movies and music, the world needs more cables to handle that demand. Because many of the data centers for many of the world’s most popular sites and services are in the US, the cables between Asia (where a large portion of the internet’s users are) and the US are particularly important.
Internet users found out just how important those undersea connections were in 2011 when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan—the same one that caused the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant—cut multiple undersea cables that comprised the primary link between the US and Asia. The cables were painstakingly fixed over several months, but “that forced people to think about an alternate location [for new cables],” Roland Certeza, GTA’s CEO told Quartz.
Guam quickly came up as a natural alternative, Certeza says. There were already a few cables that connected the west coast of the US to Guam (via Hawaii), then on to the Philippines and Hong Kong. But as more cables were installed, it made sense to put them in other locations that could provide an alternative should natural disasters strike again in the Pacific Rim.
Cables that pass through Guam provide this optionality, ensuring that the connection between the US and Asia is never severed completely. But Certeza sees a few other advantages to having the global internet cables connect through Guam (instead of, say, bypassing it to stay on the ocean floor). The island provides a good stopping point where the cables, which require electricity to transfer data, can be powered up. And because Guam is a US territory, it’s attractive to American businesses that might want to take advantage of its proximity to Asia and forthcoming fast internet speeds.
GTA is one of the largest internet service providers (ISPs) on the island after the Guam government privatized the company in 2005. Since then, it’s more than doubled its revenue, from $47 million in 2004 to $103 million in 2018, according to data shared with Quartz.
But GTA’s customers don’t just include residents and local businesses. The 210-square-mile island of Guam, a US protectorate, is also home to two US military bases—an Air Force base and a Naval base—and soon will be home to a Marine base. To transmit all the data that the US military needs from Guam to, say, the Pentagon in Virginia, as well as to other military bases around the world, GTA (among the other ISPs that the military uses) needs to be able to provide more bandwidth than the island’s population might suggest it would.
So GTA, in partnership with San Francisco-based cable owner RTI, invested in new cables. Between the first quarter of 2020 and the end of 2021, four will be installed, connecting Guam to Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, and the US mainland.
“All the cables before the ones we announced could transmit 10 gigabytes,” Certeza says. “These are 100-gigabyte cables, and we’re probably going to move to 1 terabit when suppliers make the tech available.”
In terms of GTA’s business, the cables will be a big boon because ISPs based in the US or Asia will have to pay GTA to bring its data to Guam and on to its final destination. “If there’s an interest to connect one cable to another cable at another station, we’re the glue in between there. That’s our value proposition,” Certeza says. And on Guam, GTA has already laid the copper wire that will bring the powerful connectivity of these new cables directly to customers’ doors.
Farther into the future, GTA has even bigger plans, for the company itself and Guam. Certeza says GTA wants to make Guam a destination for US-based tech companies to build their data centers. It’s appealing because Guam is a US protectorate but has a location of geopolitical importance, between the US and Asia (the island is sometimes called the “tip of the spear” because of its proximity to countries like North Korea). The closer a data center is located to its end users, the quicker the speed of internet access, with less latency.
“We think a lot of companies are going to be coming here. A lot of top-tier US carriers, IP transit carriers, the people setting up all the internet infrastructure for the world—all those guys, along with data centers from Google, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure,” Certeza says. “There’s a growing interest to utilize Guam in some capacity to do something to provide backup for the Asia Pacific. We’re in talks with all of them.”
Nothing is set in stone yet, however: Microsoft said it “nothing to share here”; Google says it is not building a facility on Guam, and Amazon did not return Quartz’s request for comment.
Certeza is hopeful about Guam’s role in the future of the internet. “Guam is a forward-moving location as far as its infrastructure goes,” Certeza says. If Certeza and GTA get their way, perhaps more internet-based industry will be thriving on Guam sometime soon.
Correction: This piece previously incorrectly identified one of Guam’s two existing military bases as Marine. Construction on the Marine base is expected to start in 2020.