Submarine Internet Cables: The Invisible Force Behind the Modern Internet
Have you ever wondered how the use of file storage service like Google Drive, video conferencing platforms like Zoom, and messaging and Voice over IP services like Whatsapp have become so fast and easy to use?
It is no magic; they are made possible through the availability of high-speed internet connections, which stems from thousands of cables led under the sea by various tech companies seeking to achieve faster connectivity speed to make their operations more efficient and the life of their customers easier.
Why the sea, you may ask? Now here is a breakdown of how the internet works. The internet is made up of tiny bits of code that move around the world, traveling along wires as thin as a strand of hair across the ocean floor.
A little history of submarine cables
At the moment, 420 submarine cables are stretching over 700,000 miles of cable (1.1 million km) worldwide, connecting various continents to support the insatiable demand for communication and entertainment.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon; the first transaction cable was laid in 1858. The cable ran from Ireland to Newfoundland. It was used to make telegraph communication possible between Canada and England.
Another one known as the world’s highest-capacity undersea internet cable stretched about 5600-mile (9012-km) and connected Oregon in the United States to Japan and Taiwan. The cable owned by Google and other tech companies, was named “FASTER.”
This isn’t stopping anytime soon as the demand for internet access and speed will increase over the next years. In addition, it is expected that more consumers and industrial devices will be connected to the internet, communicating with each other in various parts of the globe. According to Cisco, consumer internet traffic will increase by 31% in 2022, thereby experiencing an heavy compound annual growth. Therefore, to increase the internet speed connection and ensure optimal productivity, companies are now pulling their resources to collaborate in building undersea cables projects.
A closer look at these subsea cables and how they work.
Subsea cables are the physical manifestation of the internet installed at the ocean’s bottom to connect countries and continents. When you connect with a friend via a video conferencing call, store documents in the cloud, or even make internet calls, these are made possible through the subsea cables that have been laid deep down into the ocean.
At the moment, over 420 submarine cables covering 700,000 miles are responsible for internet traffic and daily financial transactions worldwide. At the heart of subsea cables, you will find the optimal fibers, which are glass filaments that are as thin as human hair. These fibers convey data in one direction.
Once the data has made landfalls it is redirected to the right telecom carrier network and sent to its destination through fiber optic cables laid in the ground.
As time goes on, these cables are upgraded so that the total capacity also increases. For instance, seven transatlantic cables laid down in the Internet Boom in 2009 had an initial capacity of 20Tbps; they were, however, upgraded by a team of engineers to 150Tbps capacity in 2015. These upgrades can only be done on older cables that have more limits in their upgradability than new cables laid in the last five years.
The invisible force of the modern internet
Today, these subsea underwater cables have become an invisible force of the modern internet. Most of them are funded by tech giants like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. Most of the people do not even have an idea that they exist in a world of wireless communication.
Right now, there are new wireless and satellite technologies invented, subsea cables have proven in all capacity to be the fastest, least expensive, and most efficient way of sending information across the ocean.
Although Google has never disclosed the cost of its project to Chile, where its largest data center is located, experts believe that the subsea project costed up to $350 million. While Google has backed at least the laying of 14 subsea cables globally, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft have invested in others connecting South America, North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe; this is according to data by TeleGeography, a research firm.
Cost of Installation
The installation of subsea cables is typically carried out by telecommunication giants.
A single cable project could cost over $500m as for example the transatlantic cable that connects the United States to Latin America. In addition, the cost of the cable installation varies on the numbers of fiber pairs and the armor type needed to protect the cable from damage. For shallow depths that are less than 1000 meters, the cables will be buried under the seafloor to avoid any form of anchors or damage by fishing vessels. The installation of these types of cables cost at least ten times more than those laid on the ocean floor surface. This is because ships that tow these cables are paid at a daily rate and move ten times slower while burying them. With additional expenses like this, shipping expenses for transatlantic cables could range as much as $60-$110M. At the same time, expensive repeaters are also required to be used in boosting the signals and must be installed every 100 kilometers.
Why tech giants are interested in installing subsea cables
Despite the cost of these installations, what someone may ask is why tech giants are battling to install subsea cable? This is due to a whole lot of factors.
According to data from TeleGeography today content providers account for 38% of total worldwide used international bandwidth. This means that tech giants make use of more bandwidth than ever. Having their own bandwidth dedicated to their services implies that they can use these cables just the way they want.
“There are a handful of very, very influential content providers who are shifting the balance away from the telecoms,” Jon Hjembo, an analyst with telecommunications research and consultancy firm TeleGeography told Bloomberg. Companies that owns the subsea cables can also have additional returns by “renting”the cables. They have the capacity to rent the cable for up to 20 years using the Indefeasible Rights of Use (IRU) contract. This contract typically specifies the monthly payment for a given capacity and can never be voided. These rentals are typically done to other telecom carriers and multinational companies interested in controlling their data flow infrastructure. Apart from the cost of the rental agreement, which could be so high and depend on so many other factors, companies interested in subletting these cables are also interested about knowing the service provider and the route diversity before investing. This is to ensure that they invest in cables that do not suffer from regular disruptions.
Tech giants and their journey to subsea cable installation.
Microsoft has declared itself as the highest-capacity subsea cable provider across the Atlantic. The cables are managed by Telxius, a subsidiary of telecom provider Telefónica. According to Telxuius, the cable will greatly benefit customers who offer internet at lower costs and make equipment upgrades easier.
Google is not left behind in this race to control who takes over the subsea cables. In the first of its kind project, Google is connecting the United States to Chile, which is the home of its largest data center in Latin America. Talking about the misconception on where the cables are laid, Jayne Stowell, who oversees construction of Google’s undersea cable projects, said, “People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not, It’s in the ocean. Getting it there is an exciting and time-intensive process.”.
Facebook is teaming up with telecommunication companies to build a 37,000km (23,000-mile) undersea cable to supply faster internet to 16 countries in Africa. This is the first time Facebook has taken an active role in subsea cables, rather than investing in existing projects or using other companies’ cables. It is also part of a long-running bid by Facebook to take its social media platform to Africa’s young population. The project, which is expected to be completed in 2024, will deliver three times the capacity of all current undersea cables serving Africa.
“When completed, this new route will deliver much-needed internet capacity, redundancy, and reliability across Africa, supplement a rapidly increasing demand for capacity in the Middle East and support further growth of 4G, 5G, and broadband access for hundreds of millions of people. The cable will run around the whole of Africa — at 37,000km; it will be just shy of the Earth’s 40,000km circumference”, said Facebook in a blog.
Africa lags behind the rest of the world in terms of internet access, and only 4 out of 10 people have access to the web. “We need to ensure that there is enough internet capacity to not only get people online but to help build a modern digital society that includes services that require a large amount of data transfer, such as cloud computing or video,” said Nick Gliddon, director of Vodafone Carrier Services which is also teaming up with Facebook to ensure that the project becomes successful. “Among the newcomers are a few of the world’s leading internet companies, which have concluded that, given the cost of renting bandwidth, they may as well make their connections.”
Huawei, which has faced intense pressure from Washington and its allies over surveillance fears, has also started moving into the subsea cable market and installation. In 2013, Australia blocked a plan by Huawei to install 4,000 kilometers of undersea cable that links Solomon Island to Sydney. This is because China planned to build surveillance systems for Chinese citizens and has been linked to massive attacks against foreign companies and government, which has resulted in a breach of data privacy. Although Huawei has over the years, denied the accusations that it poses as a security threat. James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, said, “There is no way to stop Huawei from building (undersea cables) or to keep private owners from contracting with Chinese firms on modernizing them, based purely on suspicions. Rather, the U.S. must use its cyber- and intelligence-gathering capability to gather hard evidence of back doors and other security risks.”
Challenges in laying subsea cables
One of the major challenges that have bedeviled tech firms involved in the subsea cables business is submarine spying and tapping of underwater cable, which isn’t a new concept.
During the Cold War, the U.S. submarines transported divers with special equipment to the sea of Okhotsk to intercept all forms of communication. The surveillance, which was done in secret, lasted for close to a decade until information about the surveillance was leaked to the Soviets by Ronald Pelton, a former National Security Agency communications specialist.
In today’s world, almost all international communications are carried out through subsea cables and while tapping of this cable is quite difficult, it is not impossible.
By carefully targeting parts of the internet infrastructure, cybercriminals can knock out part of the network and force people into cables controlled by them without the target, even knowing that their communication has been compromised. The easiest way this is done isn’t by taping the cable laid under the sea but at the point where it gets connected to the land. This is why the United States and other developed countries have accused some spy agencies in the past of tapping undersea cables in collaboration with some private companies. For instance, in 2013, the Guardian reported that the British spy agency GCHQ had “secretly gained access to the network of cables which carry the world’s phone calls and internet traffic.” According to the document, the spy agency was handling 600 million telephone events on a daily basis and compromised more than 200 fiber optic cables. Although the agency declined to comment on the validity of such accusations, the National Security Spokesman said the agency “can neither confirm nor deny mission-related activities.” This isn’t the only company carrying out such activities. In 2015, U.S. intelligence officials said underwater sensors spotted Russian submarines near major communication cables along with a spy ship, which is believed to carry small underwater vehicles that can cause damage to the cables.
Protecting these fragile cables
Installing subsea cables involves the use of specially designed ships that are capable of laying up to 150km per day. These cables are quite fragile. Therefore they must be surrounded with tubing to prevent damage from sharks that are usually attracted to their electromagnetic pulses. Also, issues like accidental damage from construction projects or anchor dropped from boats can cause mundane threats to these cables. Therefore telecommunication providers must not only battle to install the subsea cables, but there must be continuous effort to protect these fragile cables from things that are capable of causing early damage.
The invisible war
The war between tech companies to install subsea cables is the war over the control of the internet. As the great Ray Dalio wrote:
The technology war is a much more serious war than the trade war because whoever wins the technology war will probably also win the economic and military wars.
Tech companies have an interest to expand subsea cables with the aim of reaching a wider range of customers, providing better services and increasing productivity. In addition, the high return on investment that can be achieved by rent these cables can also be seen as a major attraction factor. As the world continues to evolve and more people embrace the use of the internet the tech giants will continue to fight this war over the control of the internet. US and Chinese tech firms are now the dominant players in the world’s big tech sectors and these big tech sectors are the industries of the future.
The Chinese tech sector has rapidly developed domestically to serve the Chinese in China and to become a competitor in world markets. At the same time China remains highly dependent on technologies from the United States and other countries (e.g., semiconductor chips from Taiwan).
In my view the subsea cables will increasingly become a technology war playground between these two great powers and the winner will control Internet and everything in it.
- Cisco: Executive Perspectives – Annual Internet Report
- Techpoint Africa: Facebook Internet Cable Africa
- CNN: The Vast, Hidden Infrastructure Lying Beneath the Ocean’s Surface
- TeleGeography Blog: Is a Mass Extinction of Submarine Cables Looming?
- SubTel Forum: Submarine Telecoms Industry Report
- NY Times: The Cables That Connect the World
- Site Selection: How Undersea Cables Drive Onshore Site Decisions
- BBC: The Rise of Undersea Internet Cables