There’s a new undersea cable in the works, unlike any system that’s been built before. It is almost 10,000 miles long. It winds under the Arctic Ocean, from the United Kingdom, over Canada, and down to Japan, offering the fastest possible route between London and Tokyo. It stops on icy Canadian shores along the way, providing internet access to small communities entirely dependent on spotty satellite connection. And what’s really new: the cable is made possible only by climate change. Melting Arctic ice is making way for giant cable ships.
This post is an excerpt from The Undersea Network, the latest book by Nicole Starosielski, an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University.
Or so this is the business case Arctic Fibre has pitched. But from a purely technical and economic standpoint, the cable makes less sense. There are plenty of terrestrial networks spanning North America. Why choose a route through a radically de-populated area and a completely inhospitable environment? Why spend $640 million to connect Arctic communities with a high-capacity cable when they’ll never use a significant percent of it? With the enormous number of data connections between London and Tokyo, who would buy the capacity on this cable? The same question could be posed to other recent (and failed) projects that sought to spend millions to link already-connected endpoints via circuitous routes, such as SPIN, a cable system designed to hop from island to island across the Pacific.
One answer: these cables offer diversity – a redundant and geographically disparate pathway that makes traffic overall more reliable. If laid, they would better protect our information flows from people, environments, and other forms of interference. Arctic Fibre avoids pressure points between Europe and Asia, including the earthquakes of the Luzon Strait, South China Sea, and western Pacific. It bypasses social and political unrest in the Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea. It avoids transit zones where ships can easily drop anchor on the cables. It has direct circuits that circumvent the United States, creating a channel between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that is supposedly secure from NSA monitoring.
Diversity has been important to telecom companies in the past, especially when a few monopolies controlled all of the submarine network. Yet the industry for the most part is conservative: it tends to stick with the tried-and-true, following existing lines across the ocean. Even though 99% of transoceanic internet traffic is carried by undersea cables, most of these systems are clustered in only a few zones. In Australia, almost everything exits through Sydney and Perth. On the United States’ east coast, most of the internet departs from landing stations outside of Miami and New York.
This didn’t seem to be a pressing problem until recently, when several very public cable breaks revealed just how fragile the network really was. In December 2006 the Hengchun earthquake off the coast of Taiwan triggered underwater landslides, breaking seven cables and significantly decreasing internet connectivity. In 2008 a series of cable cuts occurred just north of Alexandria, Egypt, a pressure point in Europe-Asia traffic. The following year a global summit was convened on the resilience of network infrastructure. The summit’s participants concluded that even though individual systems were highly reliable, on a “global level, the overall interconnectivity of the continents violates a fundamental reliability design principle—avoid single points of failure.” They worried about “geopolitical chokepoints” where cable paths were funneled together and warned us that a disaster in one of these areas “could cause catastrophic loss of regional and global connectivity.”
The cable breaks, the summit, and the ever-increasing dependency on undersea systems spurred a number of projects that, like Arctic Fibre, offer truly innovative routes across the ocean. Yet actually creating a robust, diverse network is a challenge that can’t be solved easily.
For example, take the case of Pacific Fibre, a transpacific cable proposed in 2010. Like Arctic Fibre, a key rationale for the cable was diversity. Since 2001, the Southern Cross Cable Network had been the only system linking New Zealand to the rest of the world. The country was dependent not only on one set of cables, but on the decisions of a single company. Pacific Fibre and its supporters argued that New Zealand needed another link for diversity and for information security. If Southern Cross was severed, it would jeopardize the nation’s functioning, especially since most internet content originates offshore. Financial transactions, email access, and videos of dancing Kiwi birds would all be disrupted.
Although this was surely an admirable intention, the economic situation made the cable almost impossible. In most places it is far cheaper and easier to just extend a new cable to old landing points. One entrepreneur told me that when the Australian government expressed interest in routing a cable to Melbourne instead of Sydney for diversity (adding extra length and millions of dollars), he said: “The only way it’s going to work is if you pay for it. Send check, I’ll build. Haven’t heard too much since then.”
The challenge would not be in the engineering – this was an economic, not a technological bottleneck. The cable team had to construct a system that would be profitable. To do so, they planned a low-latency cable—one that, like Arctic Fibre, would offer a more direct route with less temporal delay. Microseconds make a huge difference to high-frequency traders on global stock markets. They take advantage of slight changes in price at different locations to secure trades at quicker rates. Companies that have a more direct connection can exploit this. Just a few milliseconds can result in a difference of $20 million in a single month. If Pacific Fibre had landed its cable in Los Angeles, it could have pitched itself as the quickest route to the United States, potentially making New Zealand a site for more tech development.
Yet the pitch for a low-latency cable—an “express route”—would mean routing into existing hubs, landing at Sydney, Auckland, and Los Angeles, rather than Melbourne or San Diego. The need to make money was in direct conflict with the desire to construct a physically diverse network.
Pacific Fibre was also caught in the bind that Arctic Fibre faces today. Innovations in network geography are perceived as “risky” by the industry. A new geography means a set of new things that could fail, and this can deter investment and experimentation. Historically established routes are seen as more secure, more fundable. And yet, this negates the drive for diversity – a new set of routes and pathways that ensures our constant stream of data isn’t disrupted.
Ultimately, Pacific Fibre announced that it had failed to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to lay the network. So despite the fact that most people in the industry agreed that New Zealand could use a second cable (even Pacific Fibre’s competitors hoped that it would succeed), the need for diversity was not enough to convince investors, governments, or the public to pay for the route. Anthony Briscoe of Telecom New Zealand says that this problem is a global issue: “As soon as you say ‘internet’ now, people think, ‘I get it, free.’ Yet someone has to make that infrastructure investment.”
Projects like Arctic Fibre raise difficult questions. On one hand, we have a fragile global network. Traffic is routed through narrow pressure points and power consolidated in the hands of a small number of companies. If we want a truly reliable network, we need diversity. But on the other hand, diversity means funding risky projects and paving ever more paths through fragile environments.