New York: The internet consists of tiny bits of code that move around the world, travelling along wires as thin as a strand of hair strung across the ocean floor. The data zips from New York to Sydney, from Hong Kong to London, in the time it takes you to read this word.
Nearly 1.2 million kilometres of cable connect the continents to support our insatiable demand for communication and entertainment. Companies have typically pooled their resources to collaborate on undersea cable projects, like a freeway for them all to share.
But now Google is going its own way, in a first-of-its-kind project connecting the United States to Chile, home to the company’s largest data centre in Latin America.
“People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not,” said Jayne Stowell, who oversees construction of Google’s undersea cable projects. “It’s in the ocean.”
Getting it there is an exacting and time-intensive process. A 140-metre ship named Durable will eventually deliver the cable to sea. But first, the cable is assembled inside a sprawling factory a few hundred metres away, in Newington, New Hampshire. The factory, owned by the company SubCom, is filled with specialised machinery used to maintain tension in the wire and encase it in protective skin.
The cables begin as a cluster of strands of tiny threads of glass fibres. Lasers propel data down the threads at nearly the speed of light, using fibre-optic technology. After reaching land and connecting with an existing network, the data needed to read an email or open a web page makes its way onto a person’s device.
The physical carriers
While most of us now largely experience the internet through Wi-Fi and phone data plans, those systems eventually link up with physical cables that swiftly carry the information across continents or across oceans.
25years, the life expectancy of a data-carrying cable
In the manufacturing process, the cables move through high-speed mills the size of jet engines, wrapping the wire in a copper casing that carries electricity across the line to keep the data moving. Depending on where the cable will be located, plastic, steel and tar are added later to help it withstand unpredictable ocean environments. When finished, the cables will end up the size of a thick garden hose.
A year of planning goes into charting a cable route that avoids underwater hazards, but the cables still have to withstand heavy currents, rock slides, earthquakes and interference from fishing trawlers. Each cable is expected to last up to 25 years.
A conveyor that staff members call “the Cable Highway” moves the cable directly into Durable, docked in the Piscataqua River. The ship will carry more than 6,500km of cable weighing about 3,500 tonnes when fully loaded.
Inside the ship, workers spool the cable into cavernous tanks. One person walks the cable swiftly in a circle, as if laying out a massive garden hose, while others lie down to hold it in place to ensure it doesn’t snag or knot. Even with teams working around the clock, it takes about four weeks before the ship is loaded up with enough cable to hit the open sea.
The first trans-Atlantic cable was completed in 1858 to connect the United States and Britain. Queen Victoria commemorated the occasion with a message to President James Buchanan that took 16 hours to transmit.
While new wireless and satellite technologies have been invented in the decades since, cables remain the fastest, most efficient and least expensive way to send information across the ocean. And it is still far from cheap: Google would not disclose the cost of its project to Chile, but experts say subsea projects cost up to $350 million (Dh1.28 billion), depending on the length of the cable.
Yann Durieux, a ship captain, said one of his most important responsibilities was keeping morale up among his crew during the weeks at sea. Building the infrastructure of our digital world is a labour-intensive job.
With 53 bedrooms and 60 bathrooms, the Durable can hold up to 80 crew members. The team splits into two 12-hour shifts. Signs warn to be quiet in the hallways because somebody is always sleeping.
The ship will carry enough supplies to last at least 60 days: roughly 200 loaves of bread, 400 litres of milk, 500 cartons of a dozen eggs, 400 kilos of beef, 600kg of chicken and 800kg of rice. There’s also 300 rolls of paper towels, 500 rolls of toilet paper, 700 bars of soap and almost 300 kilos of laundry detergent. No liquor is allowed on board.
Sea of challenges
“I still get seasick,” said Walt Oswald, a technician who has been laying cables on ships for 20 years. He sticks a small patch behind his ear to hold back the nausea. “It’s not for everybody.”
Poor weather is inevitable. Swells reach up to six metres, occasionally requiring the ship captain to order the subsea cable to be cut so the ship can seek safer waters. When conditions improve, the ship returns, retrieving the cut cable that has been left attached to a floating buoy, then splicing it back together before continuing on.
Work on board is slow and plodding. The ship, at sea for months at a time, moves about 10km/h, as the cables are pulled from the giant basins out through openings at the back of the ship. Closer to shore, where there’s more risk of damage, an underwater plough is used to bury the cable in the sea floor.
The Durable crew doesn’t expect the work to slow down anytime soon.
After the Latin America project, Google plans to build a new cable running from Virginia to France, set to be done by the summer of 2020. The company has 13 data centres open around the world, with eight more under construction — all needed to power the trillions of Google searches made each year and the more than 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube each minute.
“It really is management of a very complex multidimensional chess board,” said Stowell of Google, who wears an undersea cable as a necklace.