Internet Cables

Last year one of my favourite TED Talks considered What Is The Internet, Really?  From this came some incredible ideas, basic level thinking that most of us barely even consider on a day to day basis.  The fact that we are all connected physically by wires and cables at some point or other is what affords us the notion of WiFi, email and general day to day communications.

One of the most intriguing points that came from that talk was the idea that continents, you know, those huge land masses, need ‘plugging in’ to each other.  Something that I had not even considered but this series of images from Andrew Blum’s talk shows just how physical cables expand the world wide web, well, across the world.

What prompted my thinking to a post from last year was CNN‘s recent article of TeleGeography‘s undersea map of cables that actually do wire us together and make everything from emails to video chats across the world possible.

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There’s a very interesting interview with CNN and TeleGeography’s Research Director, Alan Mauldin, here.  Alan highlights a common misconception that people think the future of communication is satellite, but for international communications over 99% is delivered by these undersea cables.

The main advantage being that it is much cheaper and, because the cables can be equipped to carry more data, it doesn’t have the limited capacity that satellite does.  More wavelengths can be added enhancing the bit rates meaning that “there is no threat of exhaustion”.

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In the past year, many cables were being built to the coastal countries of Africa, where it was previously all satellite.  I suspect that part of this was the installation that Andrew Blum saw.

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The last cable laid across the Pacific cost $300 million and one cable last year serving multiple locations in Asia topped $400 million.  However, when you consider what these cables provide to millions of people, and that they are designed to last for a minimum of 25 years, they really aren’t that expensive.

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Despite the technology being used, our connections are almost worryingly fragile.  About three quarters of all the cable faults are due to “external aggression” which seems to cover everything from ship anchors and fishing equipment to the shifting of tectonic plates.  It would be interesting to see a breakdown of human vs natural effects when considering the damage to the cables.

However, it is the foresight in the technology and design that protects us even though shifting plates and fishing occurs all the time.  Any impact has to be quite drastic to cause significant damage.  For example, the catastrophic tsunami in Japan in 2011 knocked out about half of the Japanese-fed cables.

Substantial yes, but operators managed to re-route data to nearby lines with spare capacity proving a wise decision to spend money on a well designed and robust system.

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A lot of things that we take for granted in our daily lives are made possible by fibre optic cables on the sea bed that connect us to all corners of the globe.

Each major international one has been recorded by Washington research firm TeleGeography in its Submarine Cable Map 2014.

If you have a historic interest in how these cables have developed you can see their previous Submarine cable maps here.

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2 Responses to “Internet Cables”


  1. 1 andreablythe March 18, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s fascinating to see all the connections portrayed in the maps. It’s also interesting to learn how fragile all those connections are.

  2. 2 trentpmcd March 18, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    I remember as a kid how awful (though exciting) it was to talk overseas. The signal had to climb 22k miles and then come back 22k miles. Yes, less than a second, but the delay was still noticeable. With cabled communications there is no longer a delay – the signal travels only a few thousand miles across the surface of the planet instead of bouncing off those satellites.


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