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Life Above the Undersea Cables

Have we all adopted the Internet with a sort of blind faith? It’s irresistible, and clearly has the power to change our lives. But not many of us think about what makes it physically possible to have a video meeting over skype, or share instant messages with people on the other side of the world.

It turns out the Internet is not a cloud, but a mess of wires


So how does it all happen? This video shows the exact outline of undersea cables that have been carefully laid across the ocean floor, to connect countries and people 24/7:

Today there are nearly 300 cables that are no wider than the diameter of your arm, stretching along the mountainous underwater landscapes, sometimes as deep as Everest is high. They are built to last 25 years, and can take up to 2.5 years to set up. To run one cable across the ocean floor costs hundreds of millions of dollars. This is no small undertaking.

Do we take our connection for granted?

After watching this video, you would be forgiven for thinking, “looks like we’ve pretty well got it covered”. To stay on point here, I’ll forego the fact that 4 billion people are still without connection.

What about the boats traveling above these cables? …something that has become a pressing issue of late. With people increasingly taking to the seas, we are now shown circumstances where data coverage and phone signals can save lives. The underwater cables, no matter how pervasive, are not much help to someone lost at sea. The ocean is still a place where we can find ourselves alarmingly disconnected.

Consider the recent story of the man who was lost at sea for 14 months, Salvador Alvarenga. He spent over 400 days floating without human contact. All the while invisible conversations and documents were whizzing beneath him through underwater sea cables by the second. It conjures up a strange image of technological progress alongside communication barriers.

In his first days lost at sea, Salvador Alvarenga was able to make a phone call asking for help. In order to make a call, a cell phone has to be within a cell (i.e. within a given range of a cell tower). In most cases you’re assured to get a signal a couple miles offshore, but beyond that you have to compensate with satellite. So if you’re not equipped, you can find yourself in a serious bind (which is exactly what happened to Alvarenga as his boat floated further away from land). 

There was also the recent incident of the refugee boat saved by a phone signal. This story was only possible thanks to an unusually far-reaching signal. Apparently the type of phone used, a Turkcell, can reach 50k, or 31 miles from the cell tower, much farther than the average cell range.

Cruise ship travelers avoid these issues because cruises often have their own cell towers powered by satellite, allowing travelers to stay connected.

As impressive as the underwater sea cable map is, we cannot take connectivity for granted.

What should we do to protect the connection that we do have? 

With the undersea cables in the news, there is a growing awareness that we need to take care of these cables. They are threatened by sharks (who love to gnaw at them), trawling fishing boats, anchors, and the like. See more on threats and protective measures here.

99% of the International data is passed along these wires at the bottom of the ocean. In other words we are dependent on these cables.  And not all we put on the Internet is meaningless. It’s now the standard space for government communications, classified documents and emails to be stored and exchanged.

For now, it’s good to know that if cables are compromised, there is enough room for messages to be rerouted onto another line.

 What’s Next?