Somewhere, Beyond the Sea

Google and Facebook have been planning to build an 8,000-mile long undersea cable to increase connectivity and network access between Asia and North America. The Silicon Valley Titans are now abandoning those original plans for the project after the Trump administration warned Beijing might use the connection to gather information on Americans. Hong Kong has become a hot button issue between China and the West.

Washington has a new view towards Asia. The State Department believes Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from mainland China. In response, the U.S. has rolled back Hong Kong’s preferential economic status. The Department of Justice stated that it is “not in U.S. national security or law enforcement interests to approve subsea cables landing in the People’s Republic of China’s territory when the PRC government has previously demonstrated the intent to acquire U.S. persons’ data.” The cable’s Hong Kong landing station, the group said, “would expose U.S. communications traffic to collection by the PRC.”

Google and Facebook are calling an audible. The companies have reportedly submitted a revised proposal that includes links to Taiwan and the Philippines, but does not include Hong Kong-based Pacific Light Data Communications. This company was a partner in the original plan but became a concern for U.S. security agencies due to its links to mainland China. Taiwan is moving closer to the Americans right now, much to the consternation of Beijing.

The vast majority of global data travels undersea. There are nearly 400 undersea network cables carrying data throughout the earth’s oceans. It is believed that Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft own half of them. These cables tend to have a lifespan of 25 years. Google and Facebook announced this Asian project 3 years ago. It was going to be the first connection between the U.S. and Hong Kong. Most connectivity from America to Asia goes to Japan.

The Internet is often described as a spaghetti-work of really long wires. 99% of international data travels over these submarine communication cables. Laying the cables is critical work that requires precision. The cables need to be run across flat surfaces of the ocean floor. They have to avoid coral reefs, sunken ships, fish beds, and other ecological habitats.

The diameter of a shallow water cable is about the width of a Coke can. The deepwater cables are much thinner, about the size of a Magic Marker. Cables located at shallow depths are buried beneath the ocean floor using high-pressure water jets. Did you know that sharks have shown interest in the cables? Apparently, they’ve been chewing them. Google has been shielding their cables in stainless steel wire wrappers to prevent shark attacks. I never thought I’d write about the threat of internet security from dorsal finned sources.

Earthquakes can cause undersea fiber-optic cables to malfunction or break many miles below the surface of the water. When a submarine cable is damaged, special repair ships are sent to the rescue. If the cable is located in shallow waters, robots are deployed to grab the cable and haul it to the surface. If the cable is in deep waters (generally 6500 feet or greater), the ships lower a big hook, called a grapnel, to bring it to the surface for repair.

This type of activity began in the mid 19th century. In 1854, installation began on the first transatlantic telegraph cable. 4 years later, two steam-powered ships met in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They connected two ends of a 2,500 mile long cable linking the European and North American continents by telegraph for the first time. The cables linked Newfoundland and Ireland. That was before Abraham Lincoln was President, for perspective.

The first message was sent by Queen Victoria to our 15th President, James Buchanan. The message took over 17 hours to deliver at 2 minutes per letter by Morse code. The cable was in operation for less than a month due to a variety of technical failures, but the global communications revolution had begun.

There are well over two thousand satellites in orbit. It sure seems like space would be a better way to virtually “wire” the Internet than running really long cables along the ocean floor. One could logically conclude that satellites would be better than a technology that was invented before the invention of the telephone. As it turns out, it’s not so. Sending and receiving signals to and from space takes time, costs more and can be far less reliable.

As the Internet has become more mobile and wireless, the amount of data traveling across undersea cables has increased exponentially. But few people ever see these physical pipes that cross nearly 1 Million miles underwater.

Data is the Prize in the Digital Age. Chinese telecom giant Huawei has faced intense pressure from Washington and its allies over surveillance fears. The company has been moving into the undersea cable market. Australia blocked a Huawei plan to connect a cable into Sydney due to spying and network security concerns. This is going to be an issue for a long time as this Cold War on Tech continues. These undersea cables carry vast supplies of information and data. It’s the plumbing of the World Wide Web.


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