Where is the internet? (Clue: look down)

by gracedarlingtongoldsmiths

The internet’s dependency on a real physical infrastructure, in the form of submarine cables, is a topic of great disputation. Adamant that the internets whereabouts is located within ‘the cloud’, or ‘satellites in the sky’, many are dumbfounded by the lived reality, that Mother Earth indeed has her very own mother board. The lack of understanding around the physical infrastructure is ironic, due to the global reliance upon these fibre-optic cables buried within the seabed. For these connect remote ares of the world to one another. Without this underwater network, the earth’s international web traffic would be lost.

At present, there are 285 submarine cables, 263 in use. These are available to view via TeleGeography’s interactive map. The map enables an insight into the skeleton behind the information age, allowing users access to facts about individual cables. For example, the UK-France 3 cable is 155km length, owned by BT, Orange and Vodafone, and stretches from Brighton, UK to Dieppe, France.

While the map may be relatively new technology, the submarine cable is not. The first transatlantic cable was laid over 150 years ago, in 1858. Naturally, technology has progressed since then. According to TeleGeography’s research director Alan Maudlin, over 99% of international communication is now “delivered by undersea cables”.

Notably, the term ‘international’ can only be applied loosely within the infrastructure of submarine cables. It’s important to address that in no way does a global distribution of cables equate to every corner of the world having access to the internet. Many developing countries, especially remote island communities, are still isolated from the web, with no fibre-optic cable attached to the area. Likewise, even the developing countries fortunate enough to be connected, such as Bangladesh, generally don’t have enough cables to ensure they have a stable internet connection 24 hours a day, with multiple needed to ensure total reliability and resilience. Unsurprisingly, this inequality can be primarily attributed to wealth. Cable capacity is dependent upon the market it is serving. Thus, as Maudlin explains, the demand for capacity in Africa is far less than the Atlantic. Developing countries are placed at a disadvantage when pitched against western regions, whose economic superiority confirms to companies that their investments would be better placed within these nations. This creates a cycle whereby a lack of internet connection undeniably hinders economic growth, which then halts progress in the establishment of better submarine infrastructure. However, as Maudlin suggests, improvements are being made. 2013/14 saw the erection of cables around the coast of East Africa, islands such as Tonga and Vanuatu, as well as a cable planned to connect Malaysia to India in late 2014. While there is a long way to go until complete global connection, there is small progress.

When only small steps towards worldwide connection are being taken, questions arise as to the viability of submarine cables. It is debated whether the use of cables is feasible, especially when compared to satellites, that hold far greater capacity in connecting remote regions and rural communities. Googles Project Loon illustrates a recent conversion to air-borne technologies, with the global corporation reasoning that, “two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have internet access”. Project Loon began in 2013, designed to connect remote areas using a network of balloons that float in the stratosphere.  People can connect to the balloon network using a specific antenna attached to their building, thus closing coverage gaps worldwide. If technology such as Project Loon is now in use, then why is the world still so reliant upon the submarine physical infrastructure? Again, the primary reason is cost. Cables can carry a large amount of data, whereas satellite capacity is limited, therefore making it very expensive. Once again, it seems that those most in need of an internet (or stable internet) connection are disregarded.

While the cables maybe cheap, they are easily susceptible to danger. Predictably, most damage stems from human activity, a large majority caused by innocent accident’s, such as fishing. However there are a number of cases of deliberate ruination, such as the story of three Egyptian divers caught severing a cable back in 2013. This was an incredibly unusual action, due to the risk of fatality in attempting to cut a line.

Undeniably, the biggest threat to the submarine infrastructure, and subsequently the global population, is the use of tapping and surveillance by Government authorities. In 2013, the Guardian published documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealing that GCHQ had been secretly processing vast quantities of sensitive personal information, exported from submarine cables. The agency then shared this information with its American partner, the NSA. The ambition of GCHQ had been displayed within two principle components, ‘Mastering the Internet’ and ‘Global Telecoms Exploitation’. The ability of both agencies to tap into fibre-optic cables without public awareness or acknowledgement, an operation codenamed Tempora, rightly draws up social debates of citizen autonomy and freedom. Within the data accessed by both agencies, information included phone call recordings, emails and internet histories. Arguably, although a legal procedure, this is in breach of ones right to privacy. Consequently, this questions the security of submarine cables. Suspicion’s raised as to the activities of GCHQ Bude, the agency’s base in Cornwall where a number of submarine cables make landfall, further cement the argument of the cables vulnerability. In September 2014, the BBC programme Horizon estimated that 25% of all internet traffic travels through Cornwall, with “mirror images of the signals running down submarine ethernet cables used to gather and analyse data”. This data is then copied to GCHQ for a period of 3 days. Most frightening, is the admission by Tim Berners Lee, whom explained that data is analysed by GCHQ computer programmes, to identify areas of communication in which further examination is required.

With this level of vulnerability, as well as geographical limitations, the enquiry into why the world is still so reliant on submarine cables seems increasingly relevant. Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see if there is a continual development in the undersea infrastructure. Or, will companies follow in the footsteps of innovators such as Google, turning to alternative methods to enable an encompassing ‘international connection’ with a greater global reach.