x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Deep in the ocean, internet networks hang by a thread

It has been 141 years since Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was first published. But despite technological advances, humankind knows little about the oceans.

Anyone who has read of the adventures of Captain Nemo in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, can only have been left with a sense of wonderment as to the mysteries of the deep. The journey to an incredible underwater forest, a visit to the lost city of Atlantis and a ferocious fight with a giant squid are all memorable sequences in the novel.

It has been 141 years since the book was first published. But despite technological advances in many walks of life, humankind knows little about the oceans. National Geographic estimates we have mapped only 2 or 3 per cent of the seabed.

Yet in this period we have mapped the entire surface of Mars, and you can even view it today using Google Mars. Oceanographers rightly point out that despite two-thirds of our planet being ocean, we know little about it and what resources lie within it. The greatest ocean depths known to us are around 36,000 feet, where water pressure is about 16,000 pounds per square inch. Even a titanium sphere-shaped vessel may get us only to about 18,000ft before imploding.

This grim thought has not stopped private companies such as Hawkes Ocean Technologies from designing submarines that will journey into the deep. Who knows what they will discover as they try to create a new industry of deep-sea mining.

However, one thing is certain. As they dive deeper they will pass by the nervous system of the internet - submarine cables with fibre optics at their core.

There are tens of thousands of kilometres of submarine cables meshed across the planet, serving more than 95 per cent of the world's internet and telephone traffic. It is mainly these cables that connect us to data and people. A connection to the internet may start as wireless but become a wired signal once it reaches a base station, continuing on a submarine cable.

The idea for a submarine cable was first tested by Samuel Morse in 1842, when he submerged a wire insulated in tarred hemp and India rubber off New York Harbor and sent a telegram through it. The idea was commercialised in 1850 by the Anglo-French Telegraph Company, which laid a submarine cable across the Channel from England to France. Other cables, including a transatlantic line and another connecting the UK to India and Yemen, went into service by 1870.

These early cables allowed empires of the 19th century to keep track of what was happening in far-flung corners of the world and relay information and decisions back and forth. What started as a tool of empire has today morphed into a medium to satisfy our bandwidth-hungry lifestyles.

It is estimated that global bandwidth usage is doubling every 18 months because of services such as video downloading, peer-to-peer applications such as YouTube, cloud computing and social media networking. Demand from previously unconnected geographies such as populous regions of Africa and Asia is increasing. Even countries such as Greenland - with a population of 56,000 - that were totally reliant on satellite links are switching over to submarine cables.

And in the commercial sector, businesses are seeking out more diverse routing options in the event that submarine cables are accidentally cut. The memory of the internet disruption that hit this region in January 2008 is still fresh in most minds. Approximately 75 million people were left with minimal internet access, because of a ship mooring off the coast of Egypt and cutting a submarine cable. The impact on international business was so catastrophic that a spokesman for the Egyptian ministry of communications made a plea for people not to download music and video, as this would affect businesses that had more important things to do with what precious bandwidth remained.

The truth is we are totally reliant on these physical submarine cables for our communications. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 2 billion people are connected to the internet, double the number with internet connections 10 years ago. With only 21 per cent of the population connected in developing countries, there is plenty of room for growth.

Fortunately, a number of telecommunications companies have been working in consortiums with investors in the past few years to put in place ambitious plans to build additional submarine cable diversity and routing options. This year, US$5.4 billion (Dh19.83bn) of cable projects are due for completion.

Some of the submarine cable projects in this region are the 17,000-kilometre Europe-India Gateway cable connecting landing points in Europe, north Africa, the Middle East and India. The cable will have a capacity of 3.4 terabits. To put that number in context, if you download a high-quality DVD movie of 4 gigabits, that is the equivalent of 0.004 terabits. The Gulf Bridge International cable system is the first privately owned submarine cable project in the Middle East.

These projects will satisfy immediate demand as well as reduce the price of bandwidth to end users. Stray ships and underwater earthquakes have a habit of knocking the cables out. And with more users connecting and becoming dependent on the internet for commerce, greater vigilance is needed to keep these submarine cables operational. This, unlike the rest of the ocean floor, should not be a mystery to those tasked with safeguarding the nervous system of the internet.

Rehan Khan is a business consultant and writer based in Dubai