Your data on the ocean floor.
August 17, 2010 9:43 PM   Subscribe

Thanks to reader Josef K.
posted by matkline at 9:53 PM on August 17, 2010

I want to know why the longest undersea cable (UK-Indonesia) is called "SEA-ME-WE 3."

I mean, how could the engineers even say that with a straight face?
posted by miyabo at 10:09 PM on August 17, 2010

I want to know why the longest undersea cable (UK-Indonesia) is called "SEA-ME-WE 3."

Because it's the third South East Asia - Middle East - Western Europe telecom cable.
posted by cmonkey at 10:28 PM on August 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

Undersea cables are a fascinating and jaw-dropping bit of technology most people don't realize exists.

The 1996 Wired article by Neal Stephenson linked to by the Atlantic author is one of the best pieces on undersea cables I've ever read. I'd recommend the easier to read single-page version.

This newer piece on Cyrus Field and the laying of the first transoceanic cable is also a good read. It's an primer of sorts to a new book about that first cable.
posted by thebabelfish at 10:47 PM on August 17, 2010 [8 favorites]

Fascinating. I didn't know San Luis Obispo had so many cable landings and connections. It's such a cozy little California beach town. I wonder if it has something to do with the proximity to Vandenberg AFB and/or the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, or if it's just a fortune of geography or low ship traffic or something? Central access to both SF and LA?

I also would have guessed that Seattle would have had more major landings and connections, at least more than Portland/Hillsboro, but maybe the ship traffic and convoluted Puget Sound makes it less economically desirable.

Something else a lot of people often don't know is that these cables are being constantly replaced and/or repaired. The cables are basically just laid on the ocean floor unprotected and unanchored, so damage from storms, passing ships dragging anchors and other incidents are really quite common. They like to lay down spare cables before that happens so they can just switch to the new one while it's repaired or replaced outright.

Come to think of it, I have no idea what they do with a cable that's broken beyond repair. I would imagine they just leave it there, maybe drag the end of it out into the ocean and drop it or something. Recover is costly and fiber optic cables aren't really recyclable. If so, I'd imagine the seabeds are now littered with dead cables because as far as I've read they tend to replace the cables about once a year or more, due to how often the cables are broken by ships, failures or rough seas.

Here's a good video of Alcatel making and laying a transatlantic fiber optic cable.

posted by loquacious at 10:54 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was coming in here to link to that Neal Stephenson article. It's great.
posted by PenDevil at 11:23 PM on August 17, 2010

Check out the work by Nicole Starosielski.

"“Surfacing: A Cultural Geography of Underwater Media,” traces the cultural influences on and impacts of submarine communications cables in the Pacific Rim, from telegraph cables to the fiber-optic infrastructure that now carries most transoceanic internet traffic. "
posted by k8t at 11:24 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

A disappointing map, solely because it can't scroll past 180 longitude. Making it impossible to view the cables crossing the Pacific in one go.

The Pacific. Biggest ocean in the world. Covered in data cables. Completely bisected.
posted by WhackyparseThis at 11:24 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

loquacious, Nicole's work looks specifically at SLO as a drop site. I don't want to mis-paraphrase her, but as I recall, there are a number of socio-political reasons for this.
posted by k8t at 11:26 PM on August 17, 2010

Masses of cables in Sydney emerge, apparently, in Alexandria, which is a suburb mostly consisting of taxi garages, container depots and semi-trailer parking. I knew that the series of tubes had some interface with the trucks.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:14 AM on August 18, 2010

In the late 90s and early aughts, I worked on some of those cables (specifically, on the erbium doped fiber used in EDFAs to amplify the optical signals every couple of hundred km.) It still gives me a thrill to look at these maps.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 6:27 AM on August 18, 2010

This is really interesting. I forgot about the Stephenson article, and I'll definitely be re-reading it now.
posted by neushoorn at 6:36 AM on August 18, 2010

Isn't this the kinda of thing the wing nuts start to scream that would be used by terrorists?
posted by MrLint at 6:54 AM on August 18, 2010

Is it just me or are there some "undersea" cables running through the California mountains?
posted by grubi at 6:57 AM on August 18, 2010

phat pipe d00d
posted by Eideteker at 7:09 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love how Svalbard, which has a population of something like 2,500 people, has a FIVE TERABYTE PER SECOND connection, all to themselves.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:31 AM on August 18, 2010

Well I'm not terribly well up to speed on the technicalities of this, but I would imagine that since the cable is only going to Norway, that bandwidth is only useful up to continental Scandinavia?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:40 AM on August 18, 2010

When and how Svalbard got the fibre (pdf)

Summary: Sweden built a line to Svalbard hoping to get one of 15 ground stations for a US civilian imaging satellite system (NPOESS). NPOESS has been split apart and it's unclear whether the satellites will ever actually launch, so in the meantime Svalbardians just have really really fast internet.
posted by miyabo at 8:37 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised New England only has the one cable landing in Lynn, MA, now. IIRC, the first couple of cables to go directly to the continental US were French cables to Duxbury, MA and Orleans, MA.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:52 AM on August 18, 2010

I stumbled in to the Point Arena cable landing on a road trip back in 1996. It seemed so improbable, wandering around on a beach in the middle of nowhere and suddenly there's a wire that leads to Japan.
posted by Nelson at 9:04 AM on August 18, 2010

From a more in the trenches perspective: Renesys Blog's take on the cable cutting situation back in Dec2008.
posted by zenon at 9:59 AM on August 18, 2010

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