The Cables That Keep New Zealand Connected To The World

Tom Pullar-Strecker's recent in-depth analysis on the submarine cable industry and the role it plays on connecting New Zealand.By Tom Pullar-Strecker
May 25, 2021

A bit like a spider web attached to a tree, New Zealand’s internet network hangs off just 20 strands of glass fibre, each about the thickness of a human hair. Tom Pullar-Strecker explains.

You read that right. Those glass fibres, contained in four submarine cables connecting New Zealand to the United States and Australia, carry virtually all communications to and from the country.

Cut them all, and InternetNZ chief security officer Sam Sargeant says most of the modern technology systems we rely on for work and play would stop working.

Going to Facebook, logging on to Gmail, accessing some Microsoft services – these are all services that go across these cables.”

Because so many systems and services are hosted overseas in the era of cloud computing, even sending an email to your next-door neighbour would probably be impossible.

The “weird interconnected” nature of modern systems means no-one knows exactly what services might survive and that would be hard to test without pulling the plug, Sargeant says.

“The systems we use to buy gas at the petrol station may require a global corporate connection and, if that goes down, can you buy petrol? Let’s hope so.”

NZ's submarine cable connections

Dotted lines indicate the cable is only proposed at this stage.

How long have we relied on these cables?

Submarine cables are not an engineering achievement that came in the order one might expect.

The first transcontinental cable was laid between Britain and the United States in 1858, allowing telegrams to be sent between the countries for the first time using Morse code along its seven twisted copper wires.

Queen Victoria and United States president James Buchanan used it to exchange telegrams several years before the invention of the humble stapler in 1877, and 18 years before anyone stepped into anything resembling a motor car.

Now the world’s oceans are crisscrossed by more than a million kilometres of submarine cables, linking billions of kilometres of fibre on land.

The more modern submarine cables, laid after about 1988, contain several strands of glass fibre, rather than a copper wire, to carry their traffic.

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