Regardless of what Wi-Fi and mobile data might suggest, the Internet is less a cloud of data in the air above us than a complex network of wires that shoot away under our feet.
The worldwide online networks are fed by a complex system of underwater and underground cables, which is supplemented by satellite connections in some regions.
Around 380 subsea cables transmit 99.5% of all transoceanic data that are 750,000 miles long over the ocean floor. These fiber optic cables connect the huge data centers that support cloud giants like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.
The total number of submarine cables rose rapidly in the period from mid-2000s followed by an interval in which relatively little new cable was laid, but the available capacity was slowly exhausted , A renewed demand for bandwidth caused by the rapid growth of connected devices is now driving a new wave of cable initiatives.
The first submarine cable to use fiber was TAT-8, which started operating in 1
The currently fastest cable (MAREA, jointly owned by Microsoft and Facebook) has eight fiber pairs and reached record speeds of 26.2 TB per second in 2019 – that's almost 100,000 times faster than TAT -8th.
Despite the exponential growth in volume and capacity, entire countries can experience a power outage if only one cable is damaged or torn, with ramifications for household users and businesses alike.
Submarine cables are typically routed through deep sea areas to minimize the possibility of damage. However, the deep sea is a harsh environment, and cables laid to extreme depths can be difficult to access when repairs are needed.
According to the telecommunications research company Telegeography, there are over 100 cable breaks per year . Many of these go unnoticed in developed regions with extensive redundancies, but the infrastructure that keeps us online is still far more fragile than any of us can see.
In many industrialized countries, especially in West and Asia, Internet access is more or less a matter of course – even the downtime of a moment is in trouble. However, this is not the case in large parts of the world where connections are temporary, unreliable or not available at all.
In 2018, the West African nation Mauritania went offline for two full days after the cable from the African coast to Europe (owned by a syndicate of telecommunications companies) was disconnected by a fishing trawler. In nine other countries in the region there were also failures due to the stubborn fisherman.
In the former Soviet bloc nation of Georgia, an older woman who was looking for copper to sell as scrap cut an underground cable with her spade causing neighboring Armenia to lose connection for five hours. The local media called her a "spade hacker".
Millions in Yemen were also thrown from the Internet last year after the submarine Falcon cable was cut and its repair by the civilian population still ongoing War in the country had become more complex.
Stories about sharks biting cables in the Pacific and causing occasional failures have also become common in recent years. Various articles have suggested that the creatures confuse electromagnetic waves with bioelectric currents generated by schools of fish, although some experts are skeptical about the phenomenon.
“This is probably one of the greatest myths we quote the press. While sharks have bitten some cables in the past, they are not a major threat, ”said Alan Mauldin, research director at Telegeography, in a blog post.
“Somewhere in the world there is a cable fault 3 days. These are usually due to external aggressions such as fishing and anchors – cables are inadvertently damaged [all the time] “, he said TechRadar Pro via email.
Sharks or no, the list of incidents with critical wiring damage goes on and on. All it takes is an anchored anchor so that millions lose their priceless connection.
On the Threshold of a Power Cut
It may seem surprising that entire nations can be switched offline so easily, if only temporarily. But not all countries enjoy the luxury of extensive redundancies in the event that a cable is damaged.
Japan is served by a total of 26 submarine cables, the UK by 54 cables and the USA by a whopping 91, but a A significant part of the world only needs one or two cables to connect or two if you are lucky.
TechRadar Pro examined the number of countries that depend on either one or two cables. A total of 19 countries – about 10% of the countries worldwide – are only supported by a single submarine cable. The largest (by population) include Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Togo and Sierra Leone.
If you include countries that are only supported by two cables (another 11 nations), the total number of people who need a weak connection increases to almost 450 million or 5.57% of the world's population.
It is true that some of these nations are likely to complement the connection of submarine cables with satellite links, which is a measure of support.
According to Nicole Starosielski, author of The Undersea Network and associate professor at NYU, satellites are an acceptable backup, but not comparable to the speed and bandwidth offered by fiber optic cables.
“Satellites are a viable option to complement the current network. They reach areas that cables cannot reach and offer redundancy at some locations. But they are not a replacement for the cable network, ”she explained by email.
In other words, low bandwidth satellites would quickly be overwhelmed if an entire nation tried to connect immediately, effectively making the cable system useless without them.
Don't Prepare, Don't Prepare
A reliable internet connection was once considered a luxury, but the loss of the internet can now have serious and far-reaching consequences, both for individual companies and for entire economies.  Companies in regions that suffer from poor internet penetration and temporary connectivity are likely to have acclimatized and rely more on offline work practices. In regions that are heavily dependent on connections, however, companies are often poorly equipped to deal with downtime.
Investigations by the UK-based ISP Beaming showed that British companies lost almost 60 million working hours in 2018 due to internet outages.  On average, British companies had two major failures and 16 hours of downtime each. According to Beaming, these failures cost the UK economy more than £ 700 million in lost productivity and extra overtime.
Although they cannot influence what's happening in the undersea cable world, companies can take measures to limit downtime. and the damage it does.
According to Kevin Kong, product manager at another UK-based ISP, KCOM, “the primary solution to reducing downtime has been tried and tested: resilience and diversity.
"Worst-case services must be designed – this means adequate resilience through a failover service (such as two Ethernet connections) that will keep your business running critical, if not all, of your business systems."  Given that infrastructure design is unlikely to change soon, software could play an increasing role in maintaining businesses online.
“The future could be smarter networking software that w Work on hardware infrastructure failures. We are seeing interesting efforts in this area, ”said Martin Levy, Distinguished Engineer at Cloudflare, the US web infrastructure and security company.
However, Levy also notes that the introduction of new technologies brings with it an additional risk element.
"More complex technologies come with more complex systems for administration," he says. “This requires sophisticated training and experienced people. There are places in the world where additional technology is not synonymous with improved quality. “
Demand for bandwidth
In response to the ever increasing capacity requirements, the technology giants of the world have made it their mission to finance and manage many submarine cable projects.
Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook are all involved in high-profile submarine cable networks. Together, these companies own or lease more than half of the underwater range . Google alone has four cable networks: Curie, Dunant, Equiano and Junior.
These companies must meet a rapidly growing customer demand for bandwidth, which is due to the introduction of mobile devices, the spread of IoT devices, the transition to 5G and the volume of data that companies produce and exchange between them.
"The biggest change in the past decade is that users with the greatest international bandwidth have become content providers rather than telecommunications providers," notes Mauldin.
“We are commissioning cables with higher capacities that have 12 to 16 fiber pairs. Future cables may have more. Eventually, some of the older cables that were laid in the late 1990s and early 2000s will be decommissioned. “
To put this in perspective, each pair of fibers can transmit four million high-resolution videos simultaneously. With a larger number of pairs, future cables are expected to reach speeds well above the 26.2 TB per second achieved by MAREA.
As fiber technology improves, more cable networks are installed, and old cables are replaced by high-capacity models, the amount of data that can get through our oceans will soon reach unimaginable levels.
Despite this potential, massive submarine cabling projects face a number of obstacles, including budget, logistics, and heavy bureaucracy. Perhaps the most important among them is the geopolitical conflict, as the ongoing trade war between the United States and China shows.
Google and Facebook recently activated the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN) between the United States, the Philippines, and Taiwan. The project is an excellent case study of how geopolitics can stand in the way of progress.
The network announced in 2016 was initially billed as the first to connect the United States and Hong Kong. Sections leading to Hong Kong and China remain inactive due to security concerns and ongoing conflicts between Washington and Beijing.
PLCN has 12,800 km of cabling and an estimated capacity of 120 TB per second, which would make it the highest capacity trans-Pacific route that brings lower latency and increased bandwidth to the APAC region.
Google and Facebook may be the best known actors in PLCN, but much of the fiber optic cable belongs to an organization called Pacific Light Data Communication. The sale of this company to a Beijing-based private broadband provider, Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group, in 2017, raised concerns that have followed the initiative since then.
Dr. Peng itself is not state-owned, but has close ties to Huawei, the mobile giant accused by the US government, of posing a significant security threat.
Google and Facebook have asked for permission to activate only their own parts of the submarine cable network (between the United States, the Philippines and Taiwan) that effectively excludes Pacific light data communication from the project.
When the project was first announced, Google spoke of ambitions to provide Hong Kong with enough capacity to hold 80 million simultaneous HD video conferences with Los Angeles; In the end, geopolitics took this particular goal into account.
Given the critical importance of connecting to almost all aspects of life and business, the idea that submarine wiring could become the target of terrorist attacks or attempts at sabotage was also discussed.
After the failure of Mauritania in 2018, Stuart Petch, then chief of the British Defense Staff, spoke of the "catastrophic" threat to communications and trade from foreign powers that disrupt deep-sea cables.
The same event referred the Conservative MP Rishi Sunak (since he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer) on the possibility that terrorists could use grappling hooks attached to fish trawlers to "paralyze" the British network.
However, this perceived threat appears to be exaggerated, overshadowed by the much more tangible threat of random events and natural wear and tear.
“The cable system was not a common target for attacks. Cables are accidentally broken by anchors and nets much more often than anything else. Cables break constantly and we never notice it, ”remarked Nicole Starosielski.
“The cable system could be the target, but it does not have the high visual impact that other targets offer. “
State of affairs
Although new speeds are reached each year and new cables are installed that connect different regions of the world to avoid bottlenecks in London and San Francisco, much of the global connection remains exposed to random events
The ability to improve Internet penetration, speed, and reliability in countries with limited infrastructure primarily depends on big tech – the companies that drive today's most ambitious projects.
The total number of Internet users is increasing, especially in African countries but the reliability of the service is a problem (which many perceive to be acute) that still needs to be addressed.