When we use the internet in our day-to-day lives, we tend to think of wireless networks, and although in the future it is possible that satellite networks such as Starlink will be the first way to connect to the network, the framework on which it supports that right now you are reading these lines in Hypertextual or watching a video on Youtube is much more fragile. The internet backbone it is actually crossing oceans miles deep.
A few weeks ago Grace Hopper arrived in Bilbao. And no, we are not talking about the programmer who contributed to creating the ancient COBOL programming language in the 50s, but about a new and huge Google cable that will reinforce its deployment connecting Spain (European continent), with the British Isles and the United States. United. Submarine cables are in fact more alive than ever and living a growing parcelization by States and companies who do not want to depend on those of others. Facebook without going any further ad your plans to install a new one a few days ago.
Currently, there are 426 cables that make up the so-called backbone of the internet, and have an area of about 1.4 million kilometers. Of them, for example, 14 belong to Google.
A past on cable that dates back to the 19th century
Of course, the installation of cables along the oceans precedes the internet on horseback of the technologies that were its predecessors.
In 1854 the installation of the first telegraph cable began liner, connecting Newfoundland and Ireland. Four years later the first broadcast was sent, which read: “Whitehouse received a five-minute signal. The coil signal is too weak to transmit. Try to drive slow and steady. I have put an intermediate pulley. Response by coils ”. This is, if we think about it, a not very inspiring message that perhaps today would have thought something else to send one more message noble. (“Whitehouse” referred to Wildman Whitehouse, the chief electrician of the Atlantic Telegraph Company).
The first submarine telephone cable between the United States and Europe and that would be the basis for later serving the internet was installed in 1956. That first cable was called TAT-1 (Transatlantic Issue 1). Several decades later, in 1998, it would be the turn of the TAT-8, the first optical fiber built by a consortium of companies formed by AT&T Corporation, France Télécom, and British Telecom and the support of their respective governments.
A submarine cable that does not stop growing
Since then, their number has not stopped growing, doubling in the last decade and also leaving many unused at the bottom of the sea. The project Submarine Cable Map gives a sample of all those installed on the seabed throughout the entire planet. A few days ago, a Twitter user made a 3D visualization of these cables with the data from this platform.
Submarine cables have a useful life of 25 years, time during which they are considered economically viable from the point of view of capacity. In the last decade, however, global data consumption has exploded. In 2013, internet traffic was 5 gigabytes per capita; a figure that rose to 21 gigabytes in 2020. This increase is obviously a capacity problem and will require more frequent cable updates.
Of course, repairing cables is not easy, and on some occasions they have been in trouble even by a confused shark. In fact, shark attacks are not uncommon and companies like Google have been they are shielding their cables with shark proof wraps. Here a graphical proof.
When a submarine cable is damaged, special repair boats are dispatched. If the cable is in shallow water, autonomous robots are deployed to grab the cable and drag it to the surface. If the cable is in deep water, the boats lower specially designed hooks that grip the cable and hoist it for repair. To make things easier, retainers sometimes cut the damaged cable in two, and repair vessels lift each end separately to repair it above the water.
The good news is that it is difficult to cut a submarine communications cable. The bad news is that it is possible, as seen in Egypt in 2013. There, just north of Alexandria, men in wetsuits were detained who had intentionally cut the South-East-Asia-Middle-East-West-Europe 4 cable, which runs 12,500 miles and connects three continents. Internet speed in Egypt was disrupted by 60% until the wiring could be repaired.
Sharks aside, the internet is always at risk of being disrupted by ship anchors, trawling fishing vessels and natural disasters. Therefore, looking to the future, new lines are planned in areas with less maritime traffic. A Toronto-based company has proposed to lay a cable across the Arctic that connect Tokyo and London. It was previously considered impossible, but climate change and the melting of the polar ice caps have put the proposal in the category of feasible, but very expensive.
In the end, if we think about it, the connection to a good part of the internet on Earth is not far from the cable that reaches the router and that we leave to its fate on the other side of the furniture out of sight.