Shouldn't Undersea Telecom Cables Be Obsolete? Surprisingly, No.

By Valerie Ross | February 29, 2012 4:40 pm

Two weeks ago, an accident in the Red Sea sliced through three fiber-optic telecommunications cables that carried phone calls and connected Internet users in Africa and the Middle East. Then, on Saturday, a ship dropped its anchor at an inopportune spot off the Kenyan city of Mombasa, severing another cable. With those four cables out of commission, a single cable is left to shuttle information into and out of East Africa, slowing down connection speeds by 20% in six countries in the regions for weeks until the other cables are fixed.

It seems, in the increasingly interconnected and wireless world, like a clumsy system at best to rely on cables crisscrossing the ocean floor—particularly when two relatively small maritime mishaps are enough to throw that system out of whack. But as Clay Dillow explains over at Popular Science, these undersea links are actually an impressively efficient, powerful, and—yes—stable way to connect the globe:

“It’s amazing that we’re reliant on these physical links, but the reason we are is because of the kind of quantum leaps that fiber optic technology offers,” says Andrew Blum, author of the forthcoming book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. The physical cables running along (and sometimes under) the seabed carry huge volumes of data in the form of light, orders of magnitude more data than can be packed into radio signals that might be beamed wirelessly via satellites or antenna towers.

The current problems result from a pile-up of unfortunate circumstances—four cables serving one of the least-connected parts of the globe were damaged in a short time—and yet phone and internet networks in the region are still up and running, albeit significantly more slowly than before. North America, Europe, and parts of Asia now are connected by many cables at many ports; a few being cut would be far less noticeable. Linking Africa the same way—adding more cables with more diverse routes—will lessen the likelihood of similar problems later on.

Fiber optic technology can also be easily upgraded, without having to replace the tens of thousands of miles of cable already in place, Dillow points out:

The standard operating unit for fiber optics right now is something like 10-gigabits per second. But new optical modules that are being swapped into common systems boost that capacity to 40 or even 100 gigabits per second. The same cables can then carry ten times more capacity, growing the system without laying a single new cable on the seafloor. Other tricks–involving everything from new ways of channeling signals to implementing lenses known as “time telescopes” to manipulate light pulses–could potentially keep that capacity growing at a rapid pace for the foreseeable future.

Read more at Popular Science, and check out an interactive map of these submarine cables at the Guardian.

  • Matt H.

    It is surprising anyone would think that underseas cables would be obsolete. Quantum entanglement communication is no where near the point where it could replace long distance fiber-optic cables.

  • Cody

    Uh, Matt H.: quantum entanglement communication? I am under the impression that quantum entanglement only allows for the communication of quantum information, and requires a classical channel to be useful. (I think the classical channel is required to know what basis to measure in. Eureka! I think it clicks now!)

  • Greg

    Cody: I think I sense sarcasm in Matt’s post!

    Really though, what type of system could be used to improve on undersea cables?

  • Techs

    Turtles with waterproof backpacks.

  • Cathy

    Some folks think that everything is done by sattelite now, which seems more high tech if you don’t know anything about data transmissions.

  • kerry

    Gotta keep the cables for phone calls. Trying to talk over satellites adds an annoying 1/4 second delay in each side of the conversation.

  • Brian Too

    I was in Cape Town about 7-8 years ago and we saw a large white ship in dock. It turned out to be the cable maintenance ship for about half of Africa.

    I seem to recall it’s territory was most of the West coast and a smaller chunk of the East coast, but I’m not sure. There was another cable cut a while back and that’s when it came out that they could only guarantee a 3 day response time. The prep and transit times did not allow for better than that.

    Beautiful ship.

  • Geack

    This article kinda jolted me out of my day and reminded me what a near-miracle it is that we can have conversations with people halfway around the world with no appreciable latency… even knowing how it works, it’s just amazing when you step back and look at it.


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