Undersea Cables Connect Our Global Internet; and They’re at Risk

By Kendall McElroy

Unbeknownst to the average internet user, our global internet is connected by vast highways of cables that run along the ocean floor. Today, they span almost 750,000 miles carrying over 95% of internet traffic. Opening a website on your laptop translates to lasers shooting signals down seven inch diameter fiber-optic cables at light speeds. 

However, these cables weren’t always technological marvels. First conceptualized in 1850, the first cables were laid by slow moving steam ships. The first cable laid spanned 2,500 miles across and 0.6 inches thick, connecting Europe and North American, for the first time through telegraph. Originally, it took two minutes and five seconds to translate one letter in morse code, while now, a cable would only need to use a fraction of its power to translate the entire contents of the Bodleian Library in under 40 minutes. 

Despite the fact that most of our day to day lives are governed by the use of the internet, many are unaware of the under sea cables’ presence. That is, until they are severed. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, leaving $7.1 billion in damages and bisecting multiple important cables, causing North America and Europe to lose contact for several hours. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions can damage the cables. Like the earthquake in Taiwan severing eight cables and disconnecting data flow from Taiwan to mainland China and all of Southeast Asia. 

However, most disruptions in data communication result from human error and negligence. Tim Stronge, vice president of research at Telegeography explains, “Two-thirds of cable failures are caused by accidental human activities, fishing nets and trawling and also ships’ anchors.” He further explains that, “the reason most people are not aware of these failures is because the whole industry is designed with it in mind. Companies that rely heavily on undersea cables spread their data across multiple routes, so that if one goes down, customers are not cut off.” 

Another, unaccounted for risk stems from intentional human disruption. Transnational terrorism poses major threats to the safety and sustainabiltiy of submarine cables. In 2008, Egypt experienced major power outages before the Egyptian Coast Guard caught up with the divers working on cutting the fourth cable. Another example occurred in 2010, where terrorists were caught up after cutting cabe lines off the coast of Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines. 

Regardless of the fact that these internet cables hold massive amounts of power, they remain vulnerable to the carelessness of people unaware of their presence and uncontrollable natural disasters. 

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