The Next Generation of Internet Sustainability—and the URAP Students Making it Happen

March 8, 2024

Berkeley Professor Nicole Starosielski is leading the way in subsea cable network sustainability while also empowering the next generation to take the lead.

While many people may think satellites are responsible for telecommunications as we know it, the global subsea cable network actually carries more than 99% of the internet traffic between continents. Because of their marginal carbon footprint, subsea cables have often been excluded from internet sustainability studies, yet they have the most potential for providing sustainable communications infrastructure.

Professor of Film & Media Studies Nicole Starosielski focuses on the interaction between media and the environment and has become a leading expert in subsea cable networks. Starosielski’s internationally acclaimed book The Undersea Network (2015) traces the cultural, historical, geographic and environmental dimensions of internet cables. 

Most recently, Starosielski’s research culminated in the publication of the Sustainable Subsea Networks Report, a 90+-page report that presents an array of existing and potential sustainable practices for the subsea cable industry. Including accounting and disclosing carbon dioxide emissions, setting targets, sustainable design and operations, purchase and installation of renewable energy and recycling and recovery, among other areas. 

The report was published by the Sustainable Subsea Networks, an academic-industry partnership sponsored by the SubOptic Foundation and funded by the Internet Society Foundation that investigates the sustainability of the subsea communications network on a global scale. In December 2023, the project was featured at the 2023 COP28 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai, likely the first time sustainability surrounding submarine cables was addressed in the history of COP28 conferences. 

Since joining UC Berkeley’s faculty in fall 2023, Starosielski has brought the project to campus through the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) under the Department of Film & Media Studies. The second phase of the report, from 2023-25, is focused on developing metrics for the study of the sustainability of subsea cables.    

A group of undergraduate students—Michael Brand, Isabelle Cherry, Ella Herbert and Isabel Jijón—joined the project under URAP in fall 2023, each focusing on different sectors of the subsea cable industry in their research. For instance, Jijón, a student at Sciences Po in France on exchange at UC Berkeley for the 2023-24 academic year, focuses on the maritime sector, where she conducts research on carbon dioxide and methane emissions from cable-laying ships. 

“The subsea cable industry is very large, and to get, for example, one chat, one communication from the cloud here at Berkeley to, say France, there are so many factors,” Jijón said. “It’s a really big, comprehensive, large lifecycle to transmit that information. I focus on the maritime section, which includes research about the International Maritime Organization and cable-laying ships, which are deep-sea vessels designed to lay telecommunications cables. Those ships emit carbon dioxide, methane. So how do we promote sustainability? What's already being practiced? These are the questions we’re asking—nothing exists in a vacuum in this industry.” 

Division of Arts & Humanities