Cables have something important to communicate

Aug. 2, 2019
by Mark Ollig

I recently talked with an engineer who works at a telephone company in Dallas, TX, and we eventually got around to submarine cables.

Of course, I told him the story of Winsted Telephone Company’s installation of a submarine cable I had written a column about, two years ago.

TeleGeography is a telecommunications market research and consulting firm. It is considered to be one of the most reliable sources for news, information, and statistics regarding global submarine cables – it is for me, anyway.

While satellites carry some of the international electronic voice and data traffic, 380 submarine cables haul nearly 95 percent of it.

Currently, more than 745,645 miles of fiber-optic submarine cables actively provide services around the planet over beams of laser light.

These submarine cables are resting on the bottom of the world’s oceans, and come ashore to their landing points for physical connections within a building called a landing point. From there, they connect into the telecommunications and internet service provider networks.

Many submarine cables can carry data at speeds well into the terabits per second, and today’s submarine cables are designed to last 25 years.

Initially, the cost of a submarine cable was paid for by a consortium of telecommunication carriers who would share the bandwidth capacity of the submarine cable amongst themselves.

During the late 1990s, well-funded entrepreneurial companies began financing and installing submarine cables in which they sold or leased bandwidth capacity.

The average cost of a conventional transatlantic submarine cable route is around $200 million.

Today, dominant internet content providers such as Google and Facebook, along with Amazon.com, Inc., and Microsoft are heavily investing in global submarine cables.

I was surprised to learn large internet content providers own more than one-half of the capacity of submarine cables around the world.

TeleGeography states internet companies will account for four-fifths of the transatlantic cable investment in 2020, with Google being the largest investor.

Google currently has full ownership of two submarine cable routes, and is beginning the installation of its third. Google also has investments in 14 other submarine cable projects worldwide.

“People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not. It’s in the ocean,” said Jayne Stowell, Google’s manager of undersea cable projects.

In June, Google announced its third submarine cable installation, named Equiano. This fiber-optic cable will carry data between Africa and Europe. Its undersea cable route will travel from Portugal, Spain to the tip of South Africa.

Equiano will attain data speeds of 12 terabits per second.

Installation of the Equiano submarine cable is being completed by Alcatel Submarine Networks, which owns a fleet of six cable ships.

Internet companies are now directing where their submarine cables arrive on shore; installing them in landing points close to their data centers.

Owned and financed by Facebook and Microsoft, and operated by Telxius, the new MAREA (Spanish for “tide”) submarine cable runs from Virginia Beach, VA to Bilbao, Spain. This 4,101-mile, eight-paired fiber-optic cable recently sent data at an incredibly-fast speed of 26.2 terabits per second.

Data speed of 20 terabits per second will provide 4 million high-definition or 793,000 4K ultra-high-definition simultaneous movie transmissions. It is the equivalent of sending 2,500 gigabytes per second. Incredible, isn’t it?

You may ask why Earth-orbiting satellites are not used more for global data traffic. Some are, but according to the Federal Communications Commission, satellites account for only .37 percent of all US international communication capacity.

Fiber-optic submarine cables are preferred, because they can handle more data at much less cost than satellites.

One might think when talking or using the internet over mobile phones that it occurs via wireless communications.

We do communicate via wireless signaling from our mobile phone to the nearest cellular tower site. From there, our data travels over physical copper or fiber-optic land, and even submarine cables.

Many countries ensure reliable connectivity using redundant active/standby submarine cables in the event one cable becomes cut or inoperable.

The lengthiest submarine cable is 12,427 miles, beginning in California and connecting with Hawaii, Guam, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and China.

The shortest active submarine cable listed is 81.4 miles, located between Ireland and the UK.

In 1850, the first submarine cable was placed across the English Channel to provide telegraphy communication between the UK and Europe.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau, an American philosopher and poet, said, “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

If Thoreau was here today and saw how people are using modern technological advances in global communications, I wonder if he would change his opinion.

Whenever you are on a website originating from another continent, the odds are excellent you viewed it via an undersea submarine cable.

Indeed. These submarine cables located under the world’s oceans do have something important to communicate.

The story of the Winsted Lake submarine cable can be read here: https://bit.ly/2YkiOBj.

TeleGeography’s interactive submarine cable map is available at submarinecablemap.com.

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