The Wet Web

Amid a wave of WiFi and cloud-based services, it’s wise to remember that the internet is actually an extensive network of almost six million miles of undersea cables.

When was the last time you used a LAN cable? There was a time when business travellers were never without one for logging-on in hotel rooms and hot-desking in global offices. WiFI has taken over, with mobile devices and cloud-based services threatening to kill off the hard disk, the USB stick and laptops.

We may think we live in a mobile age, but the internet is far from wireless. Almost six million miles of two-inch wide fibre-optic submarine cables carry  99% of international internet traffic back and forth across the world. The longest is the 24,000 miles of SEA-ME-WE 3, which connects South-East Asia with Western Europe and has 39 landing points. It’s about to be added to with the super-fast SEA-ME-WE 5 along the same route, which tells you all you need to know about global development.

It’s just the beginning. For all the investment in the underwater internet, the globe isn’t yet as connected as it needs to be. With the spread of mobile devices, more of us are using the internet. There will be 3.8 billion web users by 2020, up from 3.1 billion now, according to GSMI reports that over 1.6 zettabytes of global IP traffic will be generated in 2018 alone, which is more than all of the IP traffic between 1984 and 2013. It’s time for more marine megabits.

Adding to the 250+ ‘lit’ submarine cables is Arctic Fibre, an ambitious 15,000km-long project that will create the first ever high-speed 24 Tbps link between New York and Tokyo. It’s a big move for two reasons. Firstly it will mean faster internet for those at either end, and along, the route, including remote communities in the frozen North West Passage. Secondly, it’s the most geographically challenging cable ever laid.

However, undersea cables can only connect countries with a coastline, and even then, only those with large economies tend to be well served. Isolated island communities always get bypassed, and must rely on satellite connections, as do rural areas of Africa. That’s prompted some visionaries to come up with wacky solutions, from Google’s Project Loon – a concept where balloons 20 km above in the stratosphere create a communications network when and where it’s needed – and Outernet, which plans to beam web access to deprived arms from miniature satellites in low Earth orbit.

Many wrongly assume that satellites carry much of the global online traffic. It’s actually barely 1%. Satellites cost a lot to launch and carry little two-way traffic, and there’s a latency issue, too; a half-second delay makes video calling almost impossible.

It might not help isolated or rural areas, but the gap between satellites and submarine cables is quickly widening thanks to innovation in both software and hardware. Now on the sea-bed are the first cables using IPv6, a super-fast cable that will mean the network capacity exponentially increasing. In a world that required megabits to communicate in the 1990s and now needs terabits, we won’t have to worry about connectivity ‘for at least several lifetimes’ according to one industry executive I spoke to.

Next time you connect to a WiFi network, just remember that it’s not magic, it’s not clean and it’s not convenient. In fact, it’s almost completely underwater.

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