Almost 99 percent of transoceanic communication is reliant on a sprawling network of undersea cables. Phone calls, emails, instant messages, streaming and the like are all transmitted to and from internet-connected devices through these cables. They span thousands of miles, and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to lay across the ocean floor.
For the last couple of decades, the vast majority of international telecommunications has been dependent on these cables.
Today, undersea cables mainly provide easy access to internet services internationally. The first transoceanic cable was a copper telegraph wire laid across the Atlantic Ocean in 1866. Subsequent cables were laid across old colonial shipping routes, where modern cables are still laid across today. In the 1950s, coaxial cable became the standard due to its ability to carry telephone conversations.
However, coaxial became obsolete in the 1990s when fiber optic cables came about, which could transmit large amounts of data in the form of light. Compared to the electrical transmission though copper or coaxial wire, fiber optics have numerous benefits, including larger data transmissions, faster transmission rates, an immunity to electromagnetic interference, electrical resistance, corrosion resistance, lighter weight and smaller cable size. It also has the ability to be laid across long distances with no signal repeaters.
Electrical transmission is preferred in some instances for its lower cost and ability to carry electricity as well as signals. Fiber optic cables, however, have revolutionized the telecommunications industry, and play a large role in the rise of today’s age of information.
There are over 200 undersea cables that serve as the foundation of modern international telecommunications network. Everything from cellular connections to the internet rely on these cables.
The average fiber optic undersea cable can transmit 100 gigabytes per second and comes in two types. Shallow water cables are the diameter of a soda can, while deep water cables are about the diameter of a dry erase marker. Shallow water cables are thicker and more protected than deep water cables because more problems can befall them.
The cables are installed using special boats called cable layers. The best route must be determined to avoid any potential hazards to the cables, such as caverns and trenches. Most cables are laid by consortiums of providers and the largest members of these are internet providers like Verizon.
However, many cables under construction today are receiving significant funding from internet giants like Facebook, Google and Microsoft. These companies consume so much bandwidth that they need their own private transoceanic connections in order to benefit us technologically.
Unnecessary and irritating problems abound around these undersea cables. They are susceptible to damage because of natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunamis, and human disruption via the accidental or deliberate cutting of cables. Sharks and other fish may also gnaw at the cables.
However, the most common problem, accounting for 60 percent of cable breakage, are dropped anchors. Compounding these problems is the fact that most of the cables are concentrated in very few areas, so whatever problem affects one cable tends to affect multiple cables. Solutions have been devised for some of these problems. For example, cables are marked on navigational maps so ships do not drop anchors on them. To prevent aquatic animals from gnawing on the cables, companies have also shielded them with shark-proof wire wrappers.
Regardless of all the problems undersea cables face, they are still a more reliable foundation for the internet than satellites, the alternative. Although using satellites would allow us to avoid all of the problems that plague cables, they come with two large problems of their own: latency and bit loss.
It takes time to send signals to and from space via satellite. Cables are able to convey information readily and quickly, and it is much more cost-efficient to use cables over satellites.
If satellites were used in place of cables, bandwidth would become much more limited, and the price for internet from local service providers would increase exponentially. To see what a cable-less internet looks like, go to Antarctica, the only continent without a cable connection to the internet.
Without cables, researchers would rely on satellites instead and, therefore, the bandwidth each researcher is allotted would be considerably smaller than what is offered by the average provider. This is why it is so crucial to maintain the current state of cables and to take preventative measures in order to avoid excessive damage.