How Fragile is Internet Access Today and What we can do About it

By Bill Toulas / February 29, 2020

With about 71% of planet Earth’s surface covered by water, it was only natural for us to try and connect the continents with undersea fiber optic cables. The beginning was made with the TAT-8 in 1988, while a burst of cable-laying activity took place between 1996 and 2004. These cables and the ones that followed were run through deep ocean areas to minimize their chances of getting damaged, while they feature multilayered protection consisting of the tar-soaked nylon yarn, galvanized armoring wire, polyethylene insulation, copper sheath, anti-tensile wire, mylar tape, ultra-high-strength steel wire, polycarbonate, and more.

Right now, there are approximately 378 submarine cables in service around the world, stretching along 1.2 million kilometers, keeping all of us online and connected. They are owned by telecom carriers, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, investment companies, and state-level entities. The problem is, we’re already reaching the limit of their capacity, and at the same time, the decommissioning rate due to extensive and non-repairable damage is introducing problems we weren’t prepared for. Approximately 100 cable breaks occur every year, from anchors, fishing, shark bites, or sabotage. These incidents are often causing redundancies and connectivity hiccups to whole nations that can last for days. Repairing these breaks isn’t easy as the cables lie deep in the ocean.

internet cables


Larger countries prepare for these occurrences through redundancy. The UK, for example, operates 54 cables, while the United States has 91 operational internet communication cables. Most countries though rely just on one or two cables, so most of the planet’s communications are literally hanging by a thread. As the number of IoT devices is exploding, and with the 5G era approaches, it is clear that we can no longer count on undersea cables as our sole and primary linking infrastructure. Experts suggest that the answer to this problem can only come through the use of satellite internet.

Sure, these solutions are not without their own multi-layered controversy, but they are a viable answer to an emerging problem. CubeSat constellations can offer unprecedented reliability, service availability, high speed – low latency internet, and do all that at a very low cost for the consumer. Submarine cables, on the other hand, will have to grow in number exponentially if we’re planning to accommodate the rising connectivity needs. This would create a host of problems relating to geopolitics, bureaucracy, complex budgeting, etc. Already, cable layers have to avoid “chokepoints” that have been created in some locations, so things are getting squeezed and it's only going to get worse.

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