he internet, which is indeed an integral part of our lives, is also a marvel of engineering, combining a range of tricky technologies into something that enabled communication of everyone with everyone. The internet is made possible not only by the content and applications with which you interact while browsing but also by its hardware foundation. While the websites are running due to servers, they are hosted (you can learn more about hosting at https://www.hostzealot.com/) the connection is possible due to a global network of cables, which is especially fascinating considering that most of the cables are laid underwater. How this is possible? Let’s see!
How it all started?
In the mid-1800s, scientists and businessmen worked to develop a transatlantic telegraph cable to improve communication between North America and Europe. The first attempts used rubber and tarred hemp to insulate the wires, but this was not durable enough. The discovery of Palaquium gutta resin led to the development of gutta-percha, an elastic and durable material used as an insulator. Many companies tried to lay underwater cables, with some successful and some unsuccessful, due to technical and financial difficulties. In 1858, Cyrus Field founded the New York, Newfoundland & London Telegraph and the Atlantic Telegraph Company to lay a cable between Newfoundland and Ireland. Grants from the British and US governments helped fund the project, despite concerns about British-controlled territory.
In the late 1950s, scientists attempted to lay a transatlantic cable using copper wire, gutta-percha insulation, and a coating of tarred hemp. The first two attempts failed due to wear and tear, but in July-August 1958, two ships successfully laid a cable between the US and Great Britain. Queen Victoria and US President James Buchanan exchanged a congratulatory telegram that took 16 hours to transmit. The transmission rate was much slower than today’s standards, with modern cables achieving over 200 terabits per second. For instance, the MAREA wire, laid between the US and Spain, holds the current record of 224 Tbps.
What about modern cables?
Modern submarine communication cables are made of thin fiber optic strands, usually 4-12, covered in Kevlar, stainless steel, and plastic. In shallow or deep waters, the cables are thicker and consist of a copper tube surrounded by plastic, aluminum, stranded steel wire, and additional steel wire braiding if needed, followed by nylon wire, resin, and a plastic coating. Over 436 cables exist worldwide, totaling up to 1.3 million kilometers, playing a crucial role in global communication.
Submarine communication cables are laid from a cable-laying vessel and can take up to three to four weeks to load. The cable is laid gradually from the shore, and underwater obstacles are taken into account. Cable failures are usually caused by ship anchors, earthquakes, and even sharks. When a cable fails, repairs are made by sending a vessel to the site of the break, and it can take up to a week to restore the line. Cables have a lifespan of around 25 years, and when they become obsolete, they can be rerouted, recycled, or used for scientific purposes.
Will cables be replaced by satellite internet?
In 2015, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX created the Starlink satellite system to provide high-speed network access in regions without fiber optics. Despite the hype about it, the technology has not yet spread that far: satellite communications have only connected 1% of all internet users, according to Euroconsult. With this, there are various environmental and legal issues concerning satellite internet. This way, Starlink has been criticized by the International Astronomical Union for disrupting space observation due to “light pollution.” Viasat, Starlink’s main competitor, has, in turn, appealed to the US Federal Communications Commission to stop the launch of new Starlink satellites, referring to the harm that can be caused by a rapidly growing number of satellites. As a response to the criticism, Starlink has developed anti-glare coating and sun shields for its satellites to reduce brightness.
On the other hand, Satellite Internet still faces challenges with high costs and technical limitations. The high price for satellite access and equipment remains a major obstacle, with ping latency of 50-100ms, unstable connection due to weather, and interference in urban areas – installing the 4.2kg antenna outdoors requires specialized skills, let alone the fact that it needs a proper environment to function well.
Satellite Internet is currently used for areas where laying cable is not possible. Despite its low popularity, analysts argue that it has enormous prospects for the future and can bring globalization to a new level. The technology is still young and has some drawbacks, including availability and response time. However, the world’s first cars were also slower than racehorses, but technological advances eventually led to widespread adoption. A similar future awaits cables, which will be replaced by newer technology in the coming years.
The Internet is one of the main miracles of human ingenuity that has changed our lives irrevocably. The very foundation of the internet is presented by giant underwater cables the development and realization of which took decades but resulted in a seamlessly functioning system. Nevertheless, changes are coming, and in a few decades, all this marvelous infrastructure may be replaced by satellite internet.