Undersea cables ready to be laid      Photo: Chang W. Lee, The New York Times

With more than half the world now able to access the internet, according to the United Nations, there is a growing need undersea cables that literally keep the world connected, The New York Times explains.  Nearly 750,000 miles of cable is strung across the oceans all around the globe, and these cables have to withstand heavy currents, rock slides, earthquakes and interference from fishing trawlers for a lifespan of up to 25 years.  It is an expensive and time-consuming process, taking months because the ship that lays the cables moves at only about six miles per hour, and when they get close to the coast, where there’s more risk of damage to the cables, they have to be buried in the sea floor by a plow.

  • Until now, data companies like Google and Facebook have shared the costs and collaborated on building and maintaining undersea cables as if they were a freeway for all of them to share.
  • Google recently announced it is going to build and install an undersea cable all its own connecting the United States to Chile, which is the home to the company’s largest data center in Latin America — a first.
  • The wires are put in a copper casing that carries electricity across the line and then, depending on where the cable will be located, plastic, steel and tar are added to further protect the cables from unpredictable ocean environments.

Telecommunications firms used to be the biggest users of the cables, but now the big tech companies dominate, but now ontent providers like MicrosoftGoogleFacebook and Amazon own or lease more than half of the undersea bandwidth.  And there are geopolitical tensions arising around their location because countries view the undersea cables as critical infrastructure.  For example, according to The Times, last year, Australia attempted to prevent the Chinese technology giant Huawei from building a cable connecting Australia to the Solomon Islands, because the government there feared that the company would give the Chinese government access to its networks.

Why This Matters:  The demand for high-speed cables will only increase as more people rely on cloud computing because it is much easier and cheaper to send the data through the oceans than up to a satellite and back.  And new regions of the world expanding their networks and new technology on the horizon, like more powerful artificial intelligence and driverless cars, that will all need high-speed data transmission as well.  Moreover, if more companies like Google go it alone and insist on laying cables that they own and operate exclusively, it could begin to have a real impact on oceans and marine life, with lots of seabed disturbances, particularly close to shore.  Since most of the seabed is in the “global commons” and/or totally unregulated, it begs the question, who will ensure it is cared for? There is a great deal of life at the bottom of the sea.  

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