Earth on Wires

Ever fathom how the Internet works? What it really means to upload a selfie or submit an online survey? How the entire digital landscape interconnects, putting the world, as they say, at your fingertips?

There are many convoluted elements involved in answering this question; like mapping the brain, it can be a headache. And much like the brain, the internet is built upon a series of connections. Consider fiber optic cables. These bundles of glass or plastic threads are the pulse of modern day telecommunications, linking up internet connections around the world as an increasing number of people get online. Think broadband.

Currently there is enough fiber optic cable under the oceans to circle the earth 22 times, with the longest cable spanning 24,000 miles. Together the 550,000 miles of cable transmit 99% of international digital data. Undersea cables have been linking up telecommunications for over 150 years, and now a new human-caused global phenomenon is altering their trajectory, for better or worse.

The First Submarine cable

In 1854 the first transatlantic submarine telegraph cable was laid between Newfoundland and Ireland. Four years later it sent its first message:“Laws, Whitehouse received five minutes signal. Coil signals too weak to relay. Try drive slow and regular. I have put intermediate pulley. Reply by coils.”

Cable Landing stations

There are over 983 landing stations across the world.

Cutting the cables

In 2013, three men attempted to cut the SMW4 cable off the coast of Alexandria. The head of Egypt Telecom said the incident caused a 60 percent drop in Internet speeds.

Cableless antarctica

Antarctica is the only continent that has not been reached by a submarine telecommunications cable. Satellite communications are the only way to communicate, and are unreliable.

The Cable

The cable will run over 9,600 miles connecting Japan and the UK. Once the cable is connected it will take the 154 milliseconds for data to reach either side, 24 milliseconds faster than what is currently available.

As climate change warms and acidifies the world’s oceans—causing great shifts in marine habitats and presenting myriad challenges for the wildlife relying on ecosystem stability to survive—the melting effect of climate change on the Arctic is having the opposite effect for fiber optics by instead giving them even more room to grow. In remote parts of the world, such as the Arctic Circle, impenetrable Arctic sea ice has made setting up certain extremely sought-after cable routes inconceivable until recently. But now, with sea Arctic ice cover on a diminishing trajectory, it may soon be possible to connect London and Tokyo directly via fiber optic cable for the first time.

Toronto-based Arctic Fibre is the company poised to take on this monumental task, which will involve laying nearly 10,000 miles of undersea cable along the sea floor. The final course of the cable will run through the Northwest Passage, a perilous, ice-ridden waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Surrounded by more than 50,000 icebergs, the route is located some 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle and just over 1,000 miles from the North Pole. Consisting of a complex web of channels that navigate Arctic islands and icebergs, the entire passage is nearly 1,000 miles long. Scientists have predicted that the continued melting of Arctic sea ice could make the entire Northwest Passage ice-free by summers in the middle of this century. This will impact not only cable routes, but shipping routes, allowing vessels to shave nearly one-third of the distance off journeys that would otherwise require a trip through the Panama Canal.

NASA has monitored annual Arctic sea ice growth and retreat since 1978. September 2002 marked a watershed year, in which the minimum sea ice extent since 1979 was reached. Since then a number of record of near-record low years have occurred as the rate of decline has quickened in the 21st century. In September 2012, Artic sea ice reached a new all-time low of 3.39 million square kilometers (1.3 million square miles)—only around 56% of the amount present in 2000 and 1990 and less than half of what was recorded in September 1980.

1985 Ice area

1985

1985 Ice area

1990

1985 Ice area

1995

1985 Ice area

2000

1985 Ice area

2005

1985 Ice area

2010

1985 Ice area 2010 Ice area

2011

1985 Ice area 2010 Ice area

2012

1985 Ice area 2010 Ice area

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1985 Ice area 2010 Ice area

2014

The projected price tag of this next stage in underwater cable proliferation being led by Arctic Fibre is estimated to be $620 million for the just the “backbone”, which could be completed as soon as the end of 2016. Separate branches will connect Seattle, Ireland, and Tomakomai, Japan.

What makes such a daunting and expensive project worthwhile?

The link between Asia and Europe will provide a shorter route for data delivery, which translates to a number of benefits, including faster stock market transactions that can yield a competitive advantage. There would also be security benefits, especially when compared to other overland cables connecting the two regions—these cables run through the volatile Middle East or the Caucuses, especially disruption-prone regions, according to Buzzfeed. The cable will also eschew many of the other service disrupting human-related risk factors that fiber optic cables are subject to, such as fish trawling and ship anchorages, which according to the International Submarine Cable Protection Committee make up almost 70% of outages. For the Artic Fibre line, ice will be the biggest risk factor.

Tens of thousands of Canadians and Alaskans also stand to gain access from the project as well, including those living in remote villages, oil and gas exploration and extraction units, and Arctic research facilities. Without a reliable connection to the grid, up to this point these outposts have relied on slow and unpredictable satellite connections.

According to Arctic Fibre, the cable will bring “virtually unlimited bandwidth” to some 26,600 Alaskans as well as a handful of Canadian communities. It will also reduce wholesale bandwidth costs by as much as 85%.

The difference in speed between Artic Fibre’s proposed cable and existing connections between London and Tokyo can be measured in milliseconds—24 milliseconds to be exact. The new Arctic Fibre cable will decrease communication time between the U.K. and Japan from 179 milliseconds to 154 milliseconds. This minuscule time difference can feel like eternity when it comes to algorithmic stock market trading, i.e. high-frequency trading, where a difference of a few milliseconds can be the difference of millions of dollars.

On top of the additional branches, Arctic Fibre’s new cable will have several landing points, where connections to the greater grid are established: Ajigaura, Japan, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada, and Highbridge in the United Kingdom. Of the entire 10,000-mile route, only around 17 miles will be laid above ground along an area known as the Boothia Peninsula in the northern Canadian Arctic.

All this takes an enormous amount of planning. Douglas Cunningham, Chief Executive Officer of Arctic Fibre, recently said the company has undertaken extensive surveys to factor in “tides, currents, seabed conditions, and proximity to terrestrial telecom facilities.”

Cunningham has said the company is also working with local communities in order to gain from their expertise with ice conditions and environmentally sensitive areas.

Arctic Fibre is currently in a legal blackout period as they complete financing, and was thus unable to comment for this article.