Majority of all Internet traffic from this link to your PUBG account to your family WhatsApp group runs on a hidden network of undersea cables? Why should you care? Because modern life is increasingly dependent on those slinky subaquatic wires, and they get attacked by sharks from time to time. How do they work? What’s the future for them?
Join Pagista as we plunge the depths and ask how the Internet travels across oceans.
According to the authoritative Submarine Cable Map website, there are currently 493 active or actively under construction subsea internet cables crisscrossing the globe. These range from the relatively modest 300 km Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan wire running under the Black Sea to the absolutely gargantuan 6600 kilometer Mariah cable leaking Virginia Beach in the US with Bill Bauer in northern Spain, Maria. It weighs the same as 24 blue whales, apparently the firms laying down the serpentine superhighway worldwide.
There’s now one 5 million undersea data wires that arcadey about how much it all costs. But professional estimates indicate a typical transoceanic cable should set you back between 304 hundred millions of dollars. Which seems like a lot because they’re not especially thick, typically around the girth of a garden hose. And that includes layers of protective thixotropic jelly around the all important fiber optic core, plus multiple plastic sheets and copper wiring to power the thing. But even so, on average they can ferry an awesome 100gb/second in data, with newer and forthcoming cables able to transmit 400gb/second. So how does so much data fit down such slim channels?
Part of the answer is an extremely sophisticated data wrangling technique known as dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing. Put simply, dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing let’s data providers use more than one wavelength of light to convey information fiber optically. Instead, several wavelengths are employed simultaneously and stacked, creating astonishing data speeds. This happens at buzzing data center-like landing sites at either end of the cable.
Are the cables just straightforward long wires? Not quite. Every 70 to 100 km or so along the seabed, cables are punctuated with Socalled repeaters. These essentially serve as amplifiers, keeping the signal strength up to par over long distances. That’s why the cables incorporate copper conductors, by the way, carrying up to 10000 volts of DC to power the repeaters. How are the cables late? They’re first coiled into vast cylindrical drums on specialized cable laying ships. As much as the years planning and charting will go into plotting the perfect transoceanic route. Bad locations for undersea cables include anywhere volcanic or anywhere, especially earthquake or mudslide prone, or anywhere heavily trawled by fishermen. The cable is fully out the back of the ship at a sedate pace of around 10 km an hour. If the ship encounters bad weather, the captain can decide whether to break off the cord, tie it to a boy and retreat to Karma waters. When the storm passes, the ship returns to the boy and picks up where it left off.
Accidents and outages on the cables can and do occur. In 2012. Hurricane Sandy in the US. Knocked out several key transatlantic cables, disrupting networks for hours. In 2011, the Fukushima earthquake in Japan caused similar online karma. The vast majority of such disruptions, however, are the result of human carelessness. Typically, trawler nets or wayward ships anchors. Cables situated close to the shore are significantly more at risk from such disruption. As such, the nearer to land a cable is, the more likely it will be carefully armor plated.
Many are even dug into the seabed in long, dedicated trenches carved out using shift drawn plows. Awesomely sharks have been spotted nibbling on one of Google’s subsea cables. Get your teeth into a 2014 clip.
More sinister even than that, the US. Government has consistently warned of interference in the cables from hostile foreign powers like Russia or China. The US. Government should know all about that. Whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 how the NSA had no qualms eavesdropping on fiber optic communications. The geopolitical implications of undersea cables are also fascinating. Last year, the Australian government intervened to prevent Chinese technology giant Huawei from installing a cable connecting Australia with the Solomon Islands. The fear is that China could use the link to gain access to Australia’s sensitive internal networks. So who actually owns these cables? That’s an interesting question. It’s an expensive business, so historically, nations or quasi nationals and telecom providers have picked up the bill.
The world’s biggest owner of cables remains America’s At and T, with a stake in some 230000 of undersea cable. The second biggest owner is China Telecom. Frequently, cables are owned by groups or consortia of up to 50 separate owners, including tech firms, local government agencies and other businesses. And while this model helps spread the initial cost, it’s less helpful when something goes wrong and nobody can agree who has to put on a wetsuit and do something about it.
Increasingly, big tech is recognizing its scope for growth is limited by the undersea cable network. So over the past few years, the overwhelming majority of investment in undersea cable infrastructure has come from companies like Facebook, which currently owns nearly 100000 cables. Google owns roughly the same amount. Amazon has its own massive private network hooking up the online giant’s Mighty AWS data centers through cables traversing the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, plus the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and the South China Sea.
The tech giants like to frame these vast, environmentally disruptive infrastructure projects as civilization enhancing largesse on their parts. But they’re also shareholder companies, remember, who know perfectly well that increasing the number of human beings online is the only way they can continue to grow.
You’re probably thinking, what about Starlink? Isn’t our old mate Elon about to make the Internet wireless any day now? For now, cable is by far the cheapest and most efficient means of yielding vast packets of data over incredibly long distances. Fast, even normally bullish, Musk says starlink is only aimed at people who don’t presently enjoy access to high speed fiber. But who knows how that will pan out in a decade or two? For now, the future is very much undersea cables. Google and Facebook announced a joint initiative to build an undersea cable named Apricot. Apricot will link up Singapore, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia by the year 2024. The longest subaquatic cable ever. A 450 kilometer billion dollar monster called to Africa that will link up 33 nations was just bankrolled by a Facebook led consortium. What do you think?
Will mankind’s ingenious submarine network one day look as obsolete as the telegraph?