I recently took an interest in learning about the journey all of our tweets, texts, phone calls, blog posts and Facebook statuses go on after we hit submit. A short research exercise on this idea led me to some profound discoveries about how data travels in modern day.
Fiber optic cables, also often termed ‘optical fiber cables’ are the answer to my initial question and a swift conclusion to this post if you are short for time. The many brilliant people involved in the discovery and progression of this technology is too long for this article; however, it’s worth knowing that it began in 1894 when John Tyndall demonstrated to the Royal Society that light could be conducted through a curved stream of water, proving that a light signal could be bent.
If we advance many years beyond the milestones that advanced Tyndal’s original finding, we see that it wasn’t until 1970 that a group of researchers named Robert Maurer, Donald Keck and Peter Schultz made a new discovery claiming that infused silica in the wires could send information as light patterns at a volume 65k times greater the capacity of copper wire. These light pulses could then be decoded at a destination thousands of miles away into anything one is currently capable of sending. Today this technology accounts for 80% of the world’s total long distance communications traffic across 25 million kilometers of wire; the same wire that Maurer, Keck and Peter patented in 1970.
After learning about all of this my very first question was, “where are these wires located on our planet?” The answer to this querie proved to be ever-more astounding. It turns out that most all of these cables are draped along the sea floor within the planet’s oceans. This is to say that our text messages, cell phone calls and images shared can make their way from a cellphone in San Francisco, across the bottom of the ocean and end up on a laptop in Shanghai in less than 5 tenths of a second. It is worth mentioning here that when data is sent into the continental Unites States, the same process occurs with roughly 80% of the information entering underneath carefree surfers catching slow-rolling breaks off coast of San Luis Obispo, California.
My final posed question on this topic was “How does one fix these cables should they become damaged so far below the ocean surface.” This question turned out to be ‘ungoogleable’. As a result, to answer my question, I tried an open-sourced approach - posting a “calling all fiber optics gurus” message on a relevant science forum’s board. I am hereby concluding this journal entry with a copy + pasting of the brief conversation that ensued (below).
Me: Does anyone know… if Fiber-optic cables are embedded in the sea floor of the Pacific Ocean or are they draped on top of the sea floor or are they hovering just above it somehow?
Jeremy (fiber optic industry expert): The cables are laid on the bottom of the floor, not dug under the sea bed nor are they floating
Me: thank you, this still seems slightly unfathomable though, how doesn’t it get damaged often?
Jeremy: Actually they (Fiber Optic cables) get damaged quite often, and there is a fleet of vessels responsible for fixing cuts when they occur. Recently there were widespread outages in the middle east due to multiple simultaneously damaged cables. There are many redundant cables, so while it’s common for any given cable to be damaged it’s rare that enough of them will be damaged at any given time to cause an outage. Here’s an article about how they repair them.
2009 Submarine Fiber Optics World Map (click to enlarge).