Boosting Digital Infrastructure Resilience

To mitigate the effects of both natural and man-made disruptions, Taiwan plans to strengthen its undersea cable network and install a new backup satellite communication system.

For about a month in early 2023, Taiwan’s outlying Matsu Islands lost regular internet access. The only way the islanders could get online during that time was to connect to a limited internet using microwave radio transmission. Even then, connection was too slow to watch videos, and something as simple as sending a text message could take several hours.  

While the National Communications Commission (NCC) in April said that two Chinese vessels – a fishing boat and a cargo ship – were suspected of having severed the cables, it never accused Beijing of a deliberate act of sabotage.  

“If the NCC, or the companies involved, were certain beyond a reasonable doubt that China intentionally sabotaged the cables, then a Taiwan government agency would have said so publicly,” says Ross Darrell Feingold, a Taipei-based lawyer and political risk consultant. “The failure to do so indicates uncertainty about who is to blame.”  

Feingold adds that the public, along with important security partners like the United States and Japan, are “left to guess whether the cable disruption was intentional or accidental, and the names of the offending ships remain a mystery.”   

Over the past few years, Taiwan has made significant strides in bolstering its cyber defense. Efforts have included growing cyber capabilities to counter escalating gray zone campaigns, investing in information and operational technology, setting cybersecurity standards for government entities and certain industries, and forming a cyber unit within the Ministry of National Defense.  

Yet a lack of focus on basic infrastructure left digital infrastructure vulnerable. The National Communications and Cyber Security Center (NCCSC) estimates that Taiwan experienced 51 service disruptions of subsea cables between 2018 and 2022 alone.  

Kyiv’s reliance on the Starlink satellite network from SpaceX to restore connectivity disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an earlier incident highlighting the importance of ensuring resilient digital infrastructure. But the Matsu Islands incident literally hit much closer to home for Taiwan. Since then, the Tsai Ing-wen administration has redoubled its efforts to buttress Taiwan’s digital infrastructure and build backup solutions that fortify its resilience. This process involves both beefing up the undersea cable network and establishing a satellite communications network.  

Those who would argue that such efforts are long overdue note that as early as 2010, Washington, D.C.-based thinktank Project 2049 Institute pointed out that Taiwan had not addressed vulnerabilities in physical information technology infrastructure with the same alacrity as it had hacking threats.  

“Taiwan’s dependence on a small number of such cables highlights the vulnerability of its submarine information infrastructure,” Project 2049 said in a research note that year. It added that “Taiwanese policymakers must be prepared not only for hacking attempts against government and commercial computer systems but also for attacks on the physical infrastructure that supports electronic communications.”  

Taiwan’s backup networks will help it keep the lights on.

The note called on Taiwan to guard against both “accidental damage” and sabotage to its submarine communication assets.  

Natural disasters can also interfere with submarine cable operations. For example, in December 2006 two earthquakes occurring within eight minutes of each other near the Hengchun Peninsula damaged two undersea cables and severely disrupted telecommunications services in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore for about a day. The damage reduced the overall telephone capacity of Taiwan’s largest telecom service provider, Chunghwa Telecom, by between 50% and 60%.  

In the wake of Matsu’s internet outage last year, the Taipei Times reported that the National Science and Technology Council had ordered the National Center for High-Performance Computing to create a cloud server center and internet cable landing point in Tainan, as well as a backup auxiliary node in Taichung “to bolster redundancy and security.” The project is scheduled to be completed by 2025.   

Additionally, the Southeast Asia-Japan 2 (SJC2), a submarine cable system connecting Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, is expected to be completed this year. The system operators reportedly decided to establish two landing points in Tamsui and Fangshan, respectively, to ensure that a failure of one would not disconnect Taiwan from the system.  

Construction of the 10,500-kilometer fiber optic cable system was originally planned to be completed in 2020. But because of China’s lengthy approval process for projects in the South China Sea (most of which is claimed by Beijing), the schedule has been significantly delayed. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) must greenlight any projects with a “no objection letter” before consortiums can submit a formal application, Nikkei Asia reported in May 2023. According to the news site, the Chinese military has previously requested reroutes.  

Backup communication  

In addition to completing its undersea cable initiatives, Taiwan is developing a backup satellite internet network. The government is following a two-pronged approach that includes a B5G (beyond fifth generation) communication satellite under the third phase of its National Space Technology Long-Term Development Program, as well as a project by the Ministry of Digital Affairs (Moda) to enhance digital resilience in communication networks for emergency applications.  

As part of its digital resilience enhancement program, Moda on December 19 simulated the disruption of the fiber optic network in order to test the capability to maintain communications between Taipei and Kaohsiung by switching to a medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellite network.  

Moda plans to set up 700 hotspots, 70 backhaul stations, and three overseas hotspots to strengthen resilience by the end of 2024, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA). Companies that will play a key role in the initiative include Chunghwa Telecom and UK-based international satellite communication operator Eutelsat OneWeb.  

CNA reports that Chunghwa Telecom is set to invest hundreds of millions of New Taiwan dollars in acquiring a OneWeb franchise for operation within Taiwan. Additionally, the company plans to apply to Moda for a license to provide low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite services, as well as for permission to use the necessary frequencies.  

“One of the primary challenges in developing a satellite backup network lies in Taiwan’s current reliance on international service providers since it lacks an autonomous satellite network,” says Tzeng Chiau-Ling, a senior industry analyst at the semi-governmental Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute (MIC). Provided that the project stays on track, Taiwan is expected to have its independent satellite communication system ready for testing and verification purposes by roughly 2028.  

“The satellite network, being located in space, is less vulnerable to damage from human-made or natural disasters,” Tzeng says. “It can serve as a backup network for mobile and fixed networks.” She notes that international satellite communication operators can provide download speeds that meet the requirements for video conferences, internet phone calls, and other communication needs. 

“Recent policies in major countries like the United States and the European Union also highlight the importance of satellite communication in enhancing communication network infrastructure,” Tzeng says. For instance, the European Union is developing the IRIS², a satellite network construction project that will establish an independent satellite communication network, providing secure and resilient network infrastructure for governments and businesses. 

Taipei-based DigiTimes notes that development of a satellite communication network in Taiwan, along with broader growth of the industry globally, will also provide more opportunities for the domestic industry.  

“The emphasis for Taiwanese businesses is likely to be on subcontracting roles, potentially adopting an Open BOM (bill of materials) model where they earn subcontracting fees,” DigiTimes wrote in a November 2023 report. “The ability to sustain this growth will require ongoing observation.”  

“Taiwan’s plan to build its own backup satellite network is a good one,” says Grant Newsham, a retired Marine colonel and former diplomat who has served in an advisory role to the Taiwanese military. “It’s a given that China will attempt to cut off communications and internet links between Taiwan and the rest of the world.” 

Beijing has observed how such a network has been integral to Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion and would seek to prevent a similar scenario in a Taiwan contingency, he says.  

The defense of satellite networks is feasible but “takes a lot of effort,” Newsham says. Given China’s advancements in anti-satellite and space warfare, “Taiwan can use some help in this area from the U.S. and from other free nations.”