The frozen continent of Antarctica is the only significant land mass in the world yet to be connected by submarine cables. Telecommunication cables criss-cross the world’s ocean beds everywhere else, forming vital international links but so far the challenge of laying fibre-optic cable that could withstand extreme temperatures of up to -80C would be too expensive.
Ice flow, which can be as much as 10 metres per year, is another technical hurdle that would have to be overcome so, for the time being anyway, researchers on bases there will have to rely on the comparatively unreliable satellite to communicate with the rest of the world.
It may come as a surprise to many people but some 90% of the world’s internet traffic is via cable, much of which is across ocean floors. If the idea of finding a cable connecting Antarctica to the rest of the world sounds a bit extreme, here are five other places you might, and might not, expect to find cables.
Submarine cables have connected Britain and the USA since the late 19th century but up until 1956 communication was still by Morse code. The first fibre optic cables were laid in 1988 which meant that overnight, a single cable was able to handle 2,500 trans-Atlantic calls at the same time.
By the mid 90s, optical amplifiers were introduced and, as a result, a huge leap forward in capacity meant that the equivalent of 60 million calls could be handled at once. Today, with the latest cable, Apollo, the capacity is over 200 million and counting. Nine cables link New York and London, travelling 3,800 miles on the seabed from a spot on the coast near New York to another one on a north Cornish beach.
The exact location of the cables is kept secret for fear of sabotage but next time you dig on a beach in Cornwall with your bucket and spade, be careful not to go much deeper than six feet in case you disrupt everyone’s internet connection!
Across the Channel
The first telegraph cable laid across the English Channel was in 1850 and consisted of a copper wire covered in gutta percha, 1/4 of an inch thick. Although the wire remained intact, the covering was destroyed within hours due to the sea rolling it against rocks on the sea bed.
The following year, another telegraph cable was laid, four copper wires covered in gutta percha and then encased in galvanised iron. The cable measured 24 miles, weighed in at 180 tons and was towed across the Channel by tug. The cost of the cable was estimated to be around £20,000 and the entire operation cost the company £75,000. Despite a number of setbacks the cable was successful and in 1853 more cables were laid between the UK and Ireland, Holland, Belgium and Denmark.
England’s football fans may have found the heat of Manaus as trying as watching their team take on Italy in the sweltering Amazonian city at the 2014 World Cup, but spare a thought for the men who faced all kinds of hardship, including stifling heat, to lay the first submarine cables connecting the port of Belem and the river city of Manaus in the late 1890s.
At that time, Manaus was a boom town because of the rubber trade and as usual, it was commerce that was the driver behind the project which involved laying cable along the bed of the mighty Amazon river. Siemens Bros laid the cable for the Amazon Telegraph Company, using the CS Faraday. Despite an epic struggle, which included frequent breaks and faults in the line, being stranded on a sandbank for nine days, fighting currents and whirlpools, insects and the heat, the cable was eventually laid and Manaus was connected.
A holiday beach near you?
Next time you are sitting on one of these beaches along the west coast of Africa, you won’t notice it, but beneath your feet, fibre optic cables are pulsing with life. The Africa coast to Europe submarine cable follows the west coast for 17,000 km, with landing points that include, Cape Town, Swakopmund in Namibia, Accra in Ghana, Banjul in Gambia, Lagos in Nigeria, Tenerife in the Canary Islands and on to Penmarch in France.
Not everywhere in the world has superfast broadband connections, including some parts of the UK, and the feasibility of laying cable is still an issue in many places which are remote or inaccessible or where there is little existing infrastructure. The small community of Greensboro Bend in a mountainous part of Vermont in the US, has a Belgian draft horse to thank for being able to get a broadband connection.
Fred and his handler have been helping telecommunication companies lay cable for over thirty years and can tow cable over ground where even the sturdiest all-terrain vehicles struggle. If you are ever in this part of Vermont and are browsing the internet, remember who to thank – Fred the ‘telephone horse’! For more information on our custom cable solutions, get in touch today.