The Internet's Infrastructure: 6 Facts About Undersea Cables

The Internet's Infrastructure: 6 Facts About Undersea Cables

Last Thursday (May 26) saw Microsoft and Facebook announce their plan to build a large high-speed Internet undersea cable across the Atlantic. The cable, which will stretch from Virginia in the United States to Bilbao in Spain, is the latest attempt by a tech company to answer the growing demand for Internet bandwidth. The cable, known as MAREA, is about the width of a garden hose and is expected to reach 6,600 km in length. MAREA will have an estimated capacity of 160 terabytes of data per second.

Construction will begin in August and should be completed by October 2017. The cable will significantly increase the amount of data transported across the Atlantic, and joins almost 300 other Internet undersea cables that help keep the world connected. Read on for more facts about undersea cables.

 

1. First Transatlantic Cable Completed in 1858

The first transatlantic cable, a telegraph communications cable, took four years to build and was completed in 1858. Running from Newfoundland to Ireland, the first official message was sent from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan and took 17 hours and 40 minutes to reach its destination. The cable lasted only a month, but was proof that international communication via undersea cables was possible.

 

2. Undersea Cables Last Approximately 25 Years

A considerable improvement to the original lifespan of a month, the current crop of undersea cables are expected to last 25 years before requiring replacement or repairs. Robots are used to retrieve damaged cables situated less than 6,500 feet below sea level, while a grapnel is used to retrieve cables from below this limit. Special ships complete repairs and replacements at sea.

 

3. There are currently 293 Active Cables

TeleGeography’s Submarine Cable Map lists 293 active cable systems, with a further 28 currently in construction or in the planning stages. Some cable systems, like MAREA, cross oceans while others follow coasts along continents. The global network of undersea cables spans more than 550,000 miles with some cables as deep underwater as Mount Everest is above sea level.  

 

4. Cable Diameter is Determined by Depth

Huge ships known as cableships are used to install undersea cables, and can lay around 100-200 km of cable a day. Great care is taken to avoid placing the cables in ecological habitats such as coral reefs and fish beds, and cable systems must be placed across the flat surface of ocean floors. The diameter of an undersea cable is determined by its location depth; shallow water cables are roughly the same diameter as a soup can, while deep water cables are much thinner, often just 17 mm wide. Shallow water cables are thicker as they require greater protection from ships and other threats.

 

5. Spies are a bigger threat to undersea cables than sharks

Once thought to be a potential threat to undersea cables, no shark related cable fault has been reported since 2006. This hasn’t stopped companies like Google from wrapping their cables with Kevlar, but the biggest threat to undersea cables comes from anchors, fishing trawlers and undersea earthquakes. Undersea cables are also targeted by spy agencies hoping to eavesdrop on foreign data, most notably Operation IVY BELLS during the 1970’s.

Edward Snowden’s massive data leak in 2013 showed how both the U.S. and U.K. spy agencies were tapping directly into undersea cables to secretly record online communications between countries and servers. The problem this presents is so serious that a number of countries are considering developing Internet infrastructures that completely bypasses the U.S.

 

6. Cheaper than Satellites

Although fiber optic cables and communications satellites were both developed at the same time during the 1960’s, fiber optic has proved to be a much more efficient form of communication transmission. Satellites take considerably longer to send and receive signals, whereas fiber optic cables are now capable of transmitting data at 99.7 percent the speed of light. Undersea cables can carry up to 80 Tbps, which is the equivalent of transmitting 2,100 DVDs of 4.7 GB of data in one second.

 

The Internet's Backbone

Often referred to as the Internet's backbone, undersea cables are a necessary part of the infrastructure of the Internet. This type of data transmission has been in use for over 150 years, and will continue to grow over the coming years thanks to heavy investment from tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Facebook. The global undersea fiber cable market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5.75% by 2020, but could be greater than expected if bandwidth demand continues to grow at its current rate.

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