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.