16 Sep

Map of the Week: Submarine Cables

By Abigail Vandenberg

Did you know that submarine fiber optic cables are currently enabling you to view this blog post on your screen? 99% of our international data today is transmitted by underwater cables. This new edition of TeleGeography’s Submarine Cable Map depicts 464 cable systems with 1,245 landing stations around the globe. This international network of submerged cables allows for transoceanic communication within milliseconds and is crucial to the global economy. Geographically speaking this is one of the few physical networks that connects all areas of the world.

It is difficult to quantify the vast scale of the submerged cable network, as there are over 1.3 million kilometers of submarine cables in service, globally. Cables range from lengths of 131 kilometers, such as the CeltixConnect cable, to 20,000 kilometers, such as the Asia America Gateway cable. Submerged cables can reach depths of 8,000 meters, which is roughly the height of Mount Everest. However, don’t worry too much about getting snagged by one of these fiber optic cables while swimming on your next vacation, they are usually only 3 inches thick and often buried to protect them from anchors, fishing practices or other human interferences (although at greater depths these cables sit directly on the ocean floor).

Satellites are popular in today’s conversation of internet accessibility. Contrary to most beliefs, according to the U.S Federal Communications Commission, satellites account for just 0.37% of all U.S. international capacity. Cables surpass satellites because they carry more data at a more affordable price.

The possibilities of underwater fiber optic cables have expanded in recent years. For instance, in 2001, cables were only equipped to transmit 23 terabytes per second (Tbps), while newer cables are capable of carrying 224 Tbps. As the map to the left shows, companies are now investing in cable construction to meet their own data transmitting needs.

There has been a large shift in the nature of cable construction over the past decade. Building, maintaining, and using fiber optics cables is a cost-intensive process. Historically, governments and consortiums of telecommunication providers established submarine cable networks. Prior to 2012, major content providers such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon accounted for less than 10% of total usage. Eight years later, these content providers occupied 66% of the cable capacity. The massive demand for data center traffic and the international resources of these companies have pushed them to become owners of infrastructure instead of customers. This map reflects $14 billion worth of new undersea cables that have been or will be constructed by 2023.

Believe it or not, the technology of submerged cables has existed for over 150 years. In 1858, the first submerged telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic. This historical map  shows the first transatlantic achievement of its kind. While only operating for three weeks, it is a model of early technological achievement. In 1956 telephone cables replaced telegraph networks, and undersea internet cables followed in the decades to come. Although, in 150 years the process of laying out the cables has not changed much, with ships today still slowly traversing the oceans and methodically laying out cable as they go.

Submerged cable technology is actively evolving. Its capability to cross geographical boundaries and enable rapid communications between countries is invaluable to our modernizing society. Even older, slower submerged networks that do not meet the data speed standards of today are being put to use as seismic networks for researchers to study offshore earthquakes. In the next three years alone we could see the construction of more than 60 new cables. While you may not see these cables in action unless you are visiting your local landing station, their importance to technology as we know it cannot be understated.

Interested in Undersea Cable Networks? Check out this interactive live map by Esri.

To explore the Submarine Cable Map in more detail, please visit https://submarine-cable-map-2021.telegeography.com/.