STF Mag Feature: Subsea Cables, The Price Of Fame

John TibblesBy John Tibbles
January 26, 2022

For my generation of cable people explaining our job to friends or even families as to why we spent many unsocial hours on conference calls or continually on airliners was often met with ‘Really, isn’t it all done by satellite nowadays?’

Few would react that way today, our once most discrete industry is often in the public eye. Even as I am editing this cable issues are making Sunday paper headlines, fame there is but does it come at a price for the industry and perhaps even society at large.

That’s a question too big for me to answer alone and I have been helped enormously by the responses from the contributors highlighted and their opinions from industry and academic perspectives.

As an introduction:

Erick Contag, Executive Chairman Globenet and Trustee of the SubOptic Foundation.

“One of SubOptic’s main pillars is awareness. We believe awareness is critical to attract new talent to our industry but also to bring into the spotlight how critical Submarine cable systems are to the global communications fabric.

One of the unintended – positive – consequences during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020 is how acutely aware governments became of this critical digital infrastructure, resulting in some cases in much faster emergency permitting associated with cable repairs. We simply can’t be virtually connected across continents, holding endless hours of high quality and low latency video conferences, trading stocks in real time, or transferring petabytes of data without fiber optic subsea cable systems.”

To Oblivion and Back

In August 1858, the first commercial transatlantic telegraph cable started service It now took an hour to send and receive a message when it used to take weeks. It transformed commerce. In the 1950s cables could carry voice calls across the oceans, at a price, but much more clearly than HF radio. However, if you wanted to spend the money you could call your business partner in New York or your granny in Melbourne but only if you both lived in a country that had the new coaxial systems- no coastline no cable. Cables are not by any means new!

For two decades INTELSAT made telecoms via satellite a practical proposition and did a truly amazing job. Its network of geostationary satellites allowed, mostly state owned, telecom operators to communicate with anywhere else in their hemisphere via huge dish antenna Earth Stations. Thirty-three metres across these were highly visible engineering marvels and looked like science fiction. Subsea cables which could not compete for capacity, cost or versatility quietly sank into the benign oblivion from which they have only recently emerged. To the public in 1980 global telecoms meant satellites.

In fact, while the Intelsat network was it its zenith the seeds of its demise were already being sown. A consortium of Trans-Atlantic carriers led by AT&T, to fund and build TAT8 using optical transmission to the equivalent of 40,000 simultaneous phone calls. It was forecast to take a decade to fill-it took just 18 months.

Such a breakthrough received some publicity especially in technical journals. The public were most interested in was the suggestion that sharks attacked it. In their view it was updated 19th century technology hanging on in the space age. However, their effectiveness and performance were game changers. Inexorably cables took on more and more intercontinental traffic to the point that today almost 100% of the global internet is cable borne, carries once unimaginable volumes of data and made possible what we call the Internet.

However, as most of us know, politicians and government officials alike the general public shared the general public mostly still thought the internet was carried by a combination of mobile phone technology and satellites. This begs the question-was that lack of awareness such a bad thing?

Sebastian Pantin Urdaneta is pursuing an MA in International Relations and Political Science in Geneva, (he asked me to comment on views he was developing how subsea cable impacted his studies)

My interest in submarine cables began when I was looking into Internet Governance. In the academic literature Internet Governance now encompasses international organisations, cybersecurity, technical issues such as domain names and Internet Protocols, as well as the regulation of online content. Missing from all this was the fact that everything the Internet requires a massive and global physical infrastructure to exist. It was puzzling that this important area was not under study. While other academics, particularly in media studies and political economy, have looked into global communication structures, few academics from in the social sciences study submarine cables specifically. Therefore, in looking at the submarine cable industry, I became interested in understanding the factors which influence how cables are laid, maintained, owned, and secured, and by whom. In doing so, I wish to answer why these factors and their effects are important not just for the development of submarine cables, but for the Internet itself, and international politics more generally.

To continue reading the rest of this article, please read it in Issue 122 of the SubTel Forum Magazine on page 49 or on our archive site here.