Diving into a world of deep sea connectivity

darence hoGuest blog: Darence Loh, Director, Sales at Digital Realty

Responsible for the direction and execution of sales and business development operations, including lead generation, pipeline management, creating strategies & action plans for ASEAN & South Asia.

Google has announced plans to invest in a 9km undersea fibre-optic cable, as part of its goal to increase internet connectivity in the APAC region.

The project, named Indigo, will connect Singapore, Indonesia and Jakarta. Scheduled for completion in 2019, it’s another sign of APAC’s fast-growing demand for connectivity. The move follows Facebook’s partnership with Google to construct one of the highest-capacity submarine cable systems stretching across the Pacific Ocean, connecting Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Amazon Web Services are another APAC investor, with the Hawaiki Submarine Cable. Due to come online in June 2018, the 14,000km cable will dramatically increase capacity between Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Underwater logistics

Of course, enabling this form of connectivity isn’t easy.

The cost has been reported at anything between $100 million and $500 million. You have to find the right location – cables have to be placed in areas where they’re unlikely to be damaged. That means avoiding coral reefs, ecological areas, dropped anchors, sunken ships and other debris. Plus, don’t forget to factor in natural threats, like sharks:

Keeping the connection

While that video may look alarming, not even Jaws would have been able to gnaw its way through a submarine cable.

Its fibre optic is wrapped in a mixture of steel, copper and a layer of insulation. At less than 1km depth and roughly the size of a drinks can, they’re buried in the seabed, using a cable plough to dig trenches. In deeper waters where there are fewer or no risks of damage, the cable diameter shrinks to around a marker pen-sized 17mm.

Natural disasters can have an impact, as seen in Japan. When the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit in 2011, communications between Japan and the US were severely affected. Aftershocks meant it was hard to assess and fix the damage. However, providers rerouted to backup cables until they could send down deep water robots to make repairs.

The human factor

Could humans take down the internet in this way? Highly unlikely. Any attempts to cut the world’s connectivity would need some serious coordination. The networked nature of the internet means that cutting one cable would just mean bandwidth is diverted elsewhere.

Even if you could put teams in place across the globe for a simultaneous attack, you’d need some weighty equipment to withstand the pressure of (very) deep sea diving. Plus, you’d need the ability to survive the resulting electric shock from cutting through thousands of volts.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Back in 2011, a 75-year-old woman managed to take Armenia offline for several hours. While scavenging for copper, she damaged fibre optic cables owned by the Georgian Railway Company, serving Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Old world meets new era

There are currently more than 200 of these cables laying across the world’s ocean floors, often almost as deep as Mount Everest (8,848 metres) is high. And they’re crucial to the internet’s continued growth. After all, we’re now in the zettabyte era, with 2.3 ZB of annual global IP traffic predicted by 2020. Which makes it extraordinary that this form of underwater infrastructure has its origins back in 1858. That’s when the first telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic Ocean, for communication between Britain and the US.

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