Insider Perspective

Stephen Nielsen, Submarine Telecoms Forum

Stephen Nielsen
Submarine Telecoms Forum

The SS Great Eastern, a massive 22,500-ton steam ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1866. In its wake, the six-mast behemoth unspooled 4,300 km of cable, creating the first trans-continental connection and forever changing the world’s communications. The ship was a monster of its time (almost 700 feet in length). It had been originally christened Leviathan a year earlier and was designed as a passenger and cargo ship. After a failed launch due to structural issues, the owners were forced into bankruptcy and sold the ship at auction. Instead, it was loaded with cable and became one of the earliest ships of its kind. More than 150 years later, fleets of cable ships are the workhorses of the still-evolving submarine telecoms industry. While technology has changed and ships are driven by diesel instead of steam and wind, still do the job in basically the same way, if with incomparably greater precision and forethought.

The shipside of the industry is also a diverse field, with some providers owning dedicated ships, or hiring other companies that only lay cable – not design systems. The cable ships are employed in a variety of ways. Some models are dedicated and outfitted for laying cable. Others, usually smaller and more maneuverable, only repair breaks. Many today are design to serve dual purpose. The ships service laying large, trans-continental systems, small regional connections, or to reach out to oil platforms. The cable ships are an inseparable part of the submarine telecoms industry – without which, the dream of a global network would be impossible.