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The Weak Point of the Web: Undersea Internet Cables

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In MilitaryInCyberDefense and In Space News.

In our increasingly hyperconnected and wireless world, tens of millions of internet users’ connections rely on a glass fiber strand no larger than a human hair.

Where do people get their internet service?

I asked this question in a completely non-scientific poll of some friends and family, and even a few children, and for many, the answer seemed to come from the sky: Satellites.

And while satellites indeed provide supplemental connections for some remote regions, and backup for military internet use, the world’s online networks are powered by a complex system of underwater and underground cabling.

Undersea Cabling Is an Old Industry

The first submarine communications cables to provide instant telecommunications links between continents, such as the first transatlantic telegraph cable, became operational in August 1858.

By the time fiber optic cables were invented in the mid-1980s, the industry (and infrastructure) of manufacturing, storing and laying undersea cable was mature and profitable. Manufacturers knew how to properly protect, power and insulate undersea cables to achieve the best performance.

A cross-section of the shore-end of a modern submarine communications cable. 1 – Polyethylene, 2 – Mylar tape, 3 – Stranded steel wires, 4 – Aluminum water barrier, 5 – Polycarbonate, 6 – Copper or aluminum tube, 7 – Petroleum jelly, 8 – Optical fibers – Image Public Domain

Today’s Undersea Fiber Cables Are Essential

The first submarine cable to use fiber optics was TAT-8, which went live in 1988. It reached speeds of 280Mb per second. The current fastest cable (MAREA, owned jointly by Microsoft and Facebook) has eight fiber pairs, and achieved record speeds of 26.2Tb per second in 2019 – that’s almost 100,000 times faster than TAT-8.

According to TechRadar, “Around 380 undersea cables carry over 99.5% of all transoceanic data, running for 750,000 miles across the ocean floor. These fiber optic wires connect the massive data centers supporting cloud behemoths such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.”

This free, interactive cable map by research firm TeleGeography shows all 380 undersea cables.

Image Public Domain

In addition, TeleGeography reports that there are over 100 cable breaks per year. In developed countries, these breaks go largely unnoticed because of redundant systems.

But in some places, a single fiber cable can supply internet for millions of people. In 2011, an elderly Georgian woman was scavenging for copper to sell as scrap when she accidentally sliced through an underground fiber cable with her spade and cut off internet services to all of neighboring Armenia.

As Georgia provides 90% of Armenia’s internet, the woman’s unwitting sabotage had catastrophic consequences, plunging 3.2 million people into internet darkness.

Fishing trawlers, anchors, earthquakes and deep ocean currents are also often responsible for cable breaks.

Intentional Russian Sabotage

Perhaps most alarming, Business Insider reports that Russian spy ships have recently been active in the vicinity of vital undersea fiber-optic cables that power the internet and $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions.

Combined with Russia’s ability to disable American satellites, and its recent creation of a self-contained internet, disrupting information flow for the rest of the world is likely a key Russian military objective in the event of a conflict.

In 2015, the Russian spy ship the Yantar was monitored constantly by American spy satellites, ships, and planes as it cruised down the U.S. East Coast. Why the interest in the Yantar? The ship is equipped with two submersible vehicles it can deploy that have the capability to cut cables miles down in the sea.

Reliable Internet Is No Longer a Luxury – It Is Essential

From our economy to our communications and supply chains, our very lives in 2020 depend on our connection to a reliable internet.

The U.S. Department of Defense agrees. In December 2018, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the U.S. Air Force Institute for National Security Studies, and the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction banded together to call for research papers analyzing the full scope of the threat.

The internet itself is now viewed by the U.S. government as a potential weapon of mass destruction akin to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

However, because of the well-established infrastructure of the undersea cabling industry, together with our ability to pinpoint breaks in record time thanks to time-domain reflectometry, we should be able to repair cable breaks in a timely manner, even in the event of war.

So while undersea fiber cables are inherently vulnerable, the risks are mitigated by fast cable repair and an increasing reliance on space-based assets.

Still, it is amazing to think that our livelihoods depend on a 170-year-old communications technology, incrementally improved upon over the years to accommodate our massive data needs of today.

The upcoming shift to 5G cellular technology and Internet of Things (IoT) devices will only increase our appetite for bandwidth. As a result, we see higher-capacity cables beginning to enter service.

Now is the time to stop taking reliable internet for granted, and start thinking about protecting this amazing resource of human ingenuity.

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Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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