Published: April 14, 2020 7:47:26 pm
Written by Ankit Malhotra
The Indian Express dives deep to come up with some refreshing information about deep-sea cables
One never stops hearing about the internet, and the pros and cons that come with it. One also never stops pointing the clunky black device to the clouds seeking a network signal. Not many know that internet is not in the clouds or the sky, the internet is in the oceans. Nearly 750,000 miles of cable already connect the continents to support our insatiable demand for communication and entertainment. These cables carry far more data at far less cost than the satellites. So, if you want network signals, hit the floor, literally. The internet consists of tiny bits of code that move around the world, traveling along wires as thin as a strand of hair strung across the ocean floor. The data zips from New York to Sydney, from Hong Kong to London, in the time it takes you to read this word. The oceans’ vast depth besides home to aquatic life and resources also plays hosts to the world’s biggest LAN Party.
Think of deep-sea cables as a game which you used to play with your friends when you were young. Think of the network as used soda cans which were connected via a string, you and your friend spoke into the cans and thought that the string sent your message across. Well, these cables follow the same logic but, work on a larger scale. They connect each country and even continents, except underwater. These cables transmit from Europe to America and also stock traders in New York and London. These cables, placed by private companies, are the backbone of the internet. The cables begin as a cluster of strands of tiny threads of glass fibers, nothing bigger than a soda can. There are just a few layers of protection from the water, including petroleum jelly. Lasers propel data down the threads at nearly the speed of light, using fiber-optic technology. After reaching land and connecting with an existing network, the data needed to read an email or open a web page makes its way onto a person’s device. Nonetheless, they’re vulnerable to earthquakes, and at least a few times, confused sharks have bitten them.
But many cables are beneath sea life because in some places they go as deep underwater as Mount Everest is high. Ships lower a plow that digs a tiny groove in the ocean floor, lay in the cable, and it’s naturally buried by sand, thanks to the ocean’s current. And that process — it’s both stunningly simple and mind-boggling complex — is responsible for making the internet a truly global network. It’s an idea so audacious and crazy, and you think that it has to be cutting edge. And it is.
Deep-sea cables supersede the internet and have been going on for 157 years. The process for laying submarine cables hasn’t changed much in 150 years — a ship traverses the ocean, slowly unspooling a cable that sinks to the ocean floor. The SS Great Eastern laid the first continually successful trans-Atlantic cable in 1866, which was used to transmit telegraphs. Later cables (starting in 1956) carried telephone signals. A map of the submarine telegraphs in 1858, though the attempt only worked for three weeks. (Wikimedia Commons) Electric telegraphs have been around for a long time. Experiments in the early 1800s connected two ends of a garden, using a clock that revealed letters, and then they moved on to two neighborhoods, to help signal trains, and then multiple cities, thanks to the network of railroad lines. Underwater “submarine cables” were an obvious next step. So they played around.
Instead of petroleum jelly, the first ones were coated with exotic tree sap to protect them from the water. And though the undersea cables came in spurts — one of the first ones was knocked out of commission by a fishing boat — by 1858 they had reached around the Atlantic and across the world. And that’s how it’s been done ever since, laying cables that circle the earth’s oceans.
The cables are unwound from the back of a ship, sink to the ocean floor, and the world is connected in speeds measured in milliseconds. There are several ideas to bring the internet above the sea level.
Along with cell phone towers, there’s internet beamed from Facebook satellites to Africa and balloons lifted by Google. But for speedy international travel, undersea cables are still where companies like Facebook and Google place their bets. Calculated bets, those are. Take, for example, the map, which lets you slide between a 1912 map of trade routes and Telegeography’s map of submarine cables today. Economic interdependence has remained, but the methods and meanings have changed. The submarine cables map shows economic connections in less-developed countries as well. Cables between South America and Africa, for example, are much scarcer than trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific routes.
The analogy between submarine cables and historic trade routes has a lot of caveats: trade routes were determined by geography as well as economic interests, and economic incentives were a lot different than they are today. It would also be a mistake to overlook physical goods in favor of the internet (just look at those giant container ships). But both then and now, paths across the ocean require investment, trading partners on both sides, and a willingness to take risks. Sailors took the gamble in the past, and tech companies are taking it now.
These cables carry information for the entire internet, including both corporate and consumer interests. That’s why Google invested $300 million in a trans-Pacific cable system consortium to move data, Facebook put money into an Asian cable system consortium, and the finance industry invests just as much to shave a few milliseconds off trade times. Other consortia regularly lay cables to transmit the consumer’s internet. Each group’s control of a submarine cable is an advantage in the information exchange between countries.
So the next time you are unable to find the network bars, try hitting the floor.
*The author is a pupil of Jindal Global University pursing a law degree with Maritime Law interests. Views expressed are personal
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