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

group of students sitting at a table
Something humanities work does really well is to help socialize research and concepts over time. Eventually the hope is that sustainability is just the standard practice, but it will take a great deal of communication to get us there. Multi-generational research, like what we’re working on in our URAP class, is how that happens.
Nicole Starosielski, Professor, Film & Media
February 29, 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.” 

Helping to Change the Industry and the World

As a research assistant in global manufacturing metrics, Cherry, a junior studying society and environment, is responsible for reviewing sustainable supply chain metrics for subsea climate change research through reviewing industry reports, life-cycle assessments, academic papers and any other forms of media discussing the manufacturing of subsea internet cables. She attends conferences and conducts interviews with industry people all over the world who work at cable landing stations or in manufacturing, distributing, repairing and recycling cables. The goal, Cherry says, is to identify areas in the sourcing of materials and in cable manufacturing and distribution where carbon emissions can be reduced. 

Cherry’s research is then translated into short articles, reports or visual media like maps, graphics and videos. With these publications and visual media projects we hope to spotlight sustainability leaders and initiatives to show a path forward in the fight against climate change,” she said. “We hope to inspire members of the industry and younger generations to build a better future for our world. Our team is interested in raising awareness amongst young people because we have seen time and time again that the industry is looking to young people to lead the way in the next phases of developing this infrastructure.” 

Starosielski is often asked about the relationship between humanities work and internet sustainability, which she says is incredibly complementary. “The reason I’m able to coordinate all of these efforts with people all around the world is because of my work in the humanities and its inherent ability to be interdisciplinary. I’m able to understand the complexity and differences of many cultures and practices—I find that my ability to hold center on the project enables industry professionals to work together across cultures, languages and time zones. I facilitate collaboration, which is key to moving this initiative forward.” 

How Sustainability Efforts Happen

Cherry’s work relies on the ability to communicate to broad audiences the importance of the project, which is where her colleague and fellow URAP student Michael Brand comes in. A student in the College of Natural Resources with a longtime interest in subsea cable network sustainability, Brand's role includes public communications and the socialization of sustainability practices. 

“I think the biggest piece has been framing ideas in a way that the industry can get behind. Our generation broadly thinks sustainability is super important in itself (i.e. ensuring that natural disasters don’t get worse, ensuring that sea levels don’t displace people, ensuring that our food systems stay functioning etc.) but the industry is much more focused on maintaining profit margins or keeping their customers,” Brand said. “So the way we communicate with the industry about why sustainability is important and how it can be achieved needs to be framed in a different lens, often focused on making sustainable practices still make sense from a business perspective.”  

Since joining the project, Brand says one of the most impactful takeaways has been understanding the necessity of interdisciplinary work on the project. “I think that the combination of Film and Media Studies and Environmental Sustainability is one of the most important of our generation. As a College of Natural Resources student, I have spent a lot of time understanding why sustainability is important, but it is a separate challenge to convey that importance to the public, and an even harder challenge to convey that importance to industries.”

Starosielski points out the importance media has on the socialization of research through various mediums. “Something humanities work does really well is to help socialize research and concepts over time. Eventually the hope is that sustainability is just the standard practice, but it will take a great deal of communication to get us there. Multi-generational research, like what we’re working on in our URAP class, is how that happens.” 

Finding Community in Multi-disciplinary Work

Ella Herbert, a freshman studying environmental science who is researching data center sustainability metrics emphasized that beyond having the opportunity to participate in and learn from the project it has “made Berkeley feel more like a community and like I have a place here.” 

One of the general arguments in support of studying the humanistic and social sciences is their ability to teach broad and interdisciplinary skills that are necessary for most fields, such as critical thinking, global understanding of cultures and languages and the ability to communicate and collaborate. Starosielski’s URAP class seems to have been the perfect blend for students across all fields of study. 

Brand thinks all undergraduates should consider signing up for a URAP class. “I think Sustainable Subsea Networks is a really good example of what research at Berkeley can look like. Our class was based primarily on what we as undergraduates wanted to explore, and the skills we wanted to develop alongside that exploration. The idea of traveling to an awesome place for a research conference should not be a rarity in undergraduate research, nor should a primary authorship on a publication. If there is anything I want an undergraduate to take away from my experience so far, it’s that with the right professor’s guidance, anything is possible, the largest limitation is your own imagination.” 

Throughout their work on the project, the undergraduates had the opportunity to join Professor Starosielski in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the Pacific Telecommunications Council’s Annual Conference (PTC ’24) in January. (Sustainable Subsea Networks also presented at SubOptic ’23 in Bangkok.) There, the students received a standing ovation and were celebrated as the next generation of researchers. 

Indeed, it seems that these students might continue to pursue research in subsea cable network sustainability. Cherry certainly plans to continue on this research path, “I joined the Sustainable Subseas Networks project because I have always been interested in making our infrastructure more sustainable. I became excited at the idea of studying the intersection of economics, social justice, politics, and the environment. After seeing how impactful Professor Nicole Starosielski’s work has been on reducing carbon emissions, I know I have to do all I can to work with her and continue her mission.”