From under the ocean to among the stars: the story of telecommunication infrastructure

While invisible, the internet relies on solid facilities that trace their origins back to the telegraph.

“The Queen is convinced that the President will join her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem.”

This message, sent by Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan on August 16, 1858, took almost 16 hours to travel through the 3,200-kilometer cable that had just been installed under the Atlantic to connect both countries. This was the early days of the telegraph. Seven years prior, a cable had been built between Dover and Calais, allowing the London and Paris stock exchanges to share information in less than an hour rather than three days.

Over the following decades, telegraph technology would quickly take over the world, as the British Empire and the powerful Eastern Telegraph Company laid submarine cables to establish quick, reliable communication with the colonies. Other countries followed suit and it soon became possible to send telegrams across oceans and continents.

Dominance over the global undersea cable network also proved useful during war time. At the beginning of the US Civil War, Abraham Lincoln created the US Military Telegraph Corps and deployed his Navy to cut southern cables and isolate the Confederacy. In 1914, only a few hours after Britain declared war on Germany, a ship was sent to cut the five cables that connected the Reich with the rest of the world.

During the 20th century, technological progress made the telegraph obsolete, but cables would remain. In 1956, the first transatlantic telephone cable was established between Scotland and Canada. Another one linking Hawaii and Japan followed in 1964.

Why Silicon Valley is investing in submarine cables

During the 1980s, the invention of fiber-optic cables paved the way huge amounts of data to travel long distances at light speed. They proved to be the perfect infrastructure to power the global internet network established in the 1990s. Today, between 98 and 99% of international data traffic passes through submarine cables. While these cables are far more powerful than their ancestors, they still follow roughly the same geographical patterns established during the telegraph era.

According to Edward Malecki, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Ohio State University, until the 2000s only a few telecom companies (like Orange, AT&T and British Telecom) invested in transatlantic submarine cables. However, companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are now building their own cables because it makes sense for them economically.

Google’s Dunant cable connecting the US and France was completed in February 2021, and Facebook and Google recently announced funding for two new undersea internet cables running from the US West Coast to Singapore and Indonesia.

“Instead of having to rent space on traditional telecom cables, they can thus own their own cables and don’t have to pay a third party. The old cables were also being updated too slow for their own tastes. They needed faster bandwidth to power all the new services they want to provide their users with,” said Malecki.

This need is particularly powered by the rise of video, but also by the cloud industry. These companies use cloud to deliver Anything as-a-service (XaaS), which encompasses infrastructure, platforms, software and all secondary developments like Databases as-a-service (DBaaS), Bare Metal as-a-service (BMaaS) and cloud access to raw physical servers. Atos, for example, provides a Google Bare Metal solution that addresses specialized workloads such as Oracle DB, and SAP HANA. This type of cloud strategy helps to address migration risk, regulatory and security requirements, and interoperability issues.

Other breakthrough technologies are also contributing to the push, although indirectly. For example, network virtualization makes the design of mature, secure, distributed network-based applications possible, and the emergence of these applications will require increased transport bandwidth. 5G has also increased the appetite for high-bandwidth media services, and it’s likely to prompt more media content being pulled across continents — putting a heavy load on submarine cables.

“Submarine cables are more powerful than ever, yet some envision future internet connections traveling through space.”

Are we nearing the end of submarine cables?

Submarine cables are more powerful than ever and currently serve as the backbone of the internet. Yet, some envision future internet connections traveling through space. Companies such as SpaceX (with Project Starlink), Amazon (Project Kuiper) and OneWeb want to launch thousands of small, mass-produced satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) in order to provide a fast and reliable internet connection. The goal of these companies is first and foremost to connect regions that currently suffer from poor or nonexistent connectivity, such as Alaska or some parts of Africa. In the long term, however, they are betting on the fact that satellite internet could provide a viable alternative to submarine cables.

There is a distinct possibility that they may succeed. We expect these two technologies to coexist for a while, but in the long term the question of which long-haul high-bandwidth technology survives comes down to cost effectiveness.

The LEO satellites may have an edge in this respect. Satellite connections do not require a shore nearby to terminate, nor do you need to set up terminal infrastructure or continue the connections over land-based cables. All you need is a 50 cm dish – anywhere, even in the middle of a landlocked country.

The switch to the stars, however, isn’t happening anytime soon. Starlink has only recently started providing initial beta service, and OneWeb almost went bankrupt before being rescued by the UK government. It will take some time for these companies to achieve their great ambitions and get their business model up and running. In the meantime, submarine cables are here to stay.

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About Franz Kasparec
Head of global digital infrastructure and cybersecurity in telecommunications, media and technology
Franz Kasparec is globally in charge of the digital infrastructure and cybersecurity offerings in the telecommunications, media and technology industries. He spends much of his time advising carriers, media companies, and internet providers on new infrastructure and security trends. One of his specializations is mobile edge computing (MEC) and virtualization of the radio access network (RAN) in telecom. He holds several cybersecurity and business-continuity management certifications. Franz is a resident of Vienna, Austria.

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