Hastily snapped on a camera-phone, it shows where the internet feeds into Britain from New York. The super high-speed cable is now hidden under six feet of Cornish beach – just as well, because if it were discovered and damaged, the entire web in Britain could turn to treacle.

Warren Pole reports on the fragile network of ocean cabling that keeps the modern world turning, the madcap economics of internet supply – and why it will run out of space by 2014 unless technology comes up with an answer... fast

(Live magazine, Mail on Sunday)

Engineers laying the Apollo cable as it reaches UK soil

ON BRITAIN'S SOUTH Westerly tip life moves slowly. Partly this is because people here like it that way. Partly it is because fast is not an option. Motorways are non-existent South of Exeter. Mobile reception is patchy. As for Wi-Fi - on the occasions you can log on, it makes the mobile reception look good. When the government’s recent white paper on Britain’s internet future, Digital Britain, referred to the ten per cent of households in the country currently without a fast broadband connection, this was exactly the sort of place they meant.

It's ironic, then, what children building sandcastles on the Cornish beach in this main picture would find if they digged six feet down. There they would see the world’s newest and fastest internet connection – lasers fire the signal down the cable at the speed of light. In the unlikely event they did dig that far down, and in the unlikelier event that their plastic spades severed the £250 million Apollo North double-armoured OALC-4 SPDA cable, all our computers could lurch to a funereal pace.

Most people think the internet is beamed around the planet by satellites. In fact, 90 per cent of global internet traffic is piped around the world by a vast cable network, thousands of miles of which snake under the oceans. The two busiest internet hubs are New York City and London, and nine cables link them. But this cable is the globe's newest and most advanced transatlantic submarine cable system. It is so powerful that it could transport all of the internet's content in both directions even if the other eight failed all at the same time. It travels 3,800 miles along the Atlantic seabed from New York and reaches land at this north Cornish beach, making this remote footnote on Britain’s coastline one of the most important and powerful telecommunications hubs in the world.

The precise location is secret for fear of sabotage by terrorists or anarchists, hence the grainy nature of our pictures - they were snapped by one of the team and have never been published before. Live was given this one only when all interested parties agreed the beach is unidentifiable; we know where it is, but we're not telling, for obvious reasons.

Having made its way under the beach, the cable snakes through the hills behind to emerge through a nondescript hole beneath the floor of a surgically-clean control room in an anonymous facility several miles away. It's all but impossible to reach from the beach itself. The only real access is provided by the sort of meandering back road which links one postage stamp-sized place to another in these parts. But turn off at a small unmarked driveway leading to a farm and the clues start to appear.

First is the sudden change in road surface – if you didn’t know what lay just half a mile from this point you might wonder why such a tiny and remote farm would have such a high quality driveway of perfectly laid Tarmac lined with reflective bollards, each spaced with military precision and accuracy.

Drive on and you’ll come to an innocuous wooden three-bar gate, quite in keeping with the rural surroundings. But if you know where to look, you will find a security code pad tucked behind a nearby post, which opens the gate. Beyond is the dreary-looking building which houses Britain’s most powerful internet connection. The statistics for the system are astonishing.

The actual cable itself isn’t much wider than a garden hose. But flashing through the eight fibre optic cables bundled inside its narrow confines, each just the width of a single human hair, is enough bandwidth for 20 million people. Every second 3.2 terabits of data fire down the cable, each single piece taking 0.00072 seconds to complete the 7600-mile return journey from here to the USA.

To put this almost incomprehensible data transfer speed into perspective, it’s almost a million times faster than the average broadband speed for UK households of just 3.6 megabits per second (Mbps) as measured by Ofcom this year. It’s no wonder the monthly electricity bill here is £25,000.

Apollo’s speed is courtesy of ultra-high-powered lasers at either end of its cable, one here in the UK and the other in New York, which blast the optical signal down the fibre optic lines. As no light source is powerful enough to retain its intensity for almost 4000 miles, electrical repeaters costing £1 million each and fed by the 10,000 volt current running through the cable itself are attached to the cable on the seabed at 30 mile intervals to boost the signal.

The immense and consistent power the repeaters keep pouring down the cable at all times is another good reason for the team of engineers manning the cable station 24 hours a day to work very carefully. Not only could one slip on their part cut the connection completely losing huge amounts of revenue, it could give them a deadly electric shock, or fire a searing microscopic laser beam at them.

‘You don’t want to look down the end of the cable without knowing for certain it’s switched off,’ explains Ben Burns, Apollo’s submarine cable engineer.

‘Even if it was on, the laser is such a tiny pinprick of light, you’d never see it. The first you’d know about it would be when you burned your retina out seconds later.’

Such are the advances in laser and fibre optic technology which are driving the manic pace of internet capacity expansion worldwide.

The web around the world: map showing current global internet connections and capacities

(© 2009 TeleGeography all rights reserved)

Although there have been undersea cables connecting Britain to America since the late nineteenth century, these were Morse code only until 1956 when they became analogue and capable of a then unheard of 36 telephone calls at once. But it was the introduction of the first fibre optic system in 1988 which saw the big leap forward – suddenly a single cable could carry 2500 calls at once. The crowning revolution came in the mid ’90s with the introduction of optical amplifiers which gave the lasers beaming down the undersea cables a huge boost, lifting the capacity on a single cable to the equivalent of 60 million phone calls. Apollo’s cable manages the equivalent data transfer of 200 million phone calls.

With the data capacity of a single cable increased 80,000 times in just 20 years it’s easy to see where the internet’s massive expansion is coming from.

As Apollo’s managing director, Richard Elliott, says: 'Technology keeps moving on and the ability to increase it seems to be inexorable. In the last 15 years people have repeatedly said expansion can’t go any further, and then someone else comes up with another brilliant new idea. Capacity goes up exponentially and there’s no sign of that slowing down.’

But in a world where we are increasingly dependent on the web, where we take for granted email and the almost limitless capacity to view, access and download information, video and TV, what if this Micawberish assumption is misplaced? According to latest analysis from TeleGeography, specialists in communications research, we could be facing a huge shortfall in transatlantic cable capacity.

Stephan Beckert, the company’s director of research, says: ‘There are about 39 Terabits per second (Tbps) of potential total capacity across the Atlantic, of which 25% is currently being used. But while it would seem this leaves plenty spare, we project demand will exceed 39Tbps by 2014.' Telegeography’s latest report, issued just a week ago, adds: 'Superficially, the transatlantic market now appears sound, however, clouds loom on the horizon.’ Alan Mauldin, one of the company's analysts, suggested transatlantic cable operators and buyers were facing a ‘slow motion crisis.’

Amid all this, is the government’s target of rolling out 10 megabits per second (Mbps) broadband (the kind that will allow whole films to be downloaded in seconds) for the whole of the UK by 2013 viable?

‘Its technologically realistic and quite possible already, let alone in 2013,’ Elliot argues. ‘While I agree with Telegeography’s analysis, even if the transatlantic cables reach capacity, the internet is becoming increasingly global so the proportion of requests going to the USA is falling as more of the content we access comes from Europe on other routes. The bigger question is who’s going to pay for it?’

If 2014’s capacity crunch really does hit, then new cables will have to be laid. But laying these will cost far more than current bandwidth rates on the route can cover. Cable operators are already aware of this according to Elliott.

‘There will be a period between now and 2014 when buyers realise it’s going to get tight – we’re in uncharted territory and it’ll be fascinating to see what happens.’

Cost is also a major issue once the internet reaches dry land and is diverted away via smaller hubs and onto homes and businesses beyond. Both Virgin Media and BT have spearheaded fibre optic broadband network development in the UK, but will only pipe it into areas with enough traffic to turn a profit.

However the government won’t stump up the cash to hook up those in the unprofitable disconnected desert areas, hence the proposed £6 per year telephone tax for all phone lines to cover the missing funds. Whether this will genuinely become policy remains to be seen, especially as initial public reaction has been frosty in the extreme.

Finances aside, the technology and capacity does exist for much faster broadband for the entire UK, as well as the rest of the world. But with ever more data charging through cables deep beneath the oceans, comes another very big problem.

‘Huge capacity down single cables is great,' says Kevin Connor of Global Marine Systems, one of the world’s largest undersea cable installation and maintenance firms. 'That is, until that cable gets cut.”

Leading-edge undersea cable get cut or damaged all the time - either by fishing boats trawling the seabed, or an anchor clumsily dropped in the wrong place. When that happens, millions of connections, not to mention the huge sums of revenue they generate, are wiped out instantly.

It’s up to huge repair ships like the 12,000-ton Wave Sentinel to find the break and fix it, fast. The boat is one four ships stationed around the North Atlantic on permanent standby to repair cable breaks anywhere within the 40 million square miles covered by both the Northern and Southern Atlantic oceans. When these ships are called out, someone gets a very hefty bill with the average repair costing more than half a million pounds.

‘It’s expensive when a cable goes down,’ says Richard Kearns, Wave Sentinel’s captain ‘but compared to the revenues those cables can generate, it’s peanuts.’

It also happens far more often than you might think. ‘Last year we were at sea for 11 months of the year, and did around 30 repairs,’ says Kearns. ‘We’ve done nine in the last four months already so it doesn’t look like being any quieter this year either.’

At the time of my visit, the Wave Sentinel was at rest in Portland Harbour, although unlikely to stay there long as its three co-vessels were already deployed on repairs elsewhere in the Atlantic.

‘It’s a dangerous job - you’re so far away from any rescue, and with 10,000 volts running through the cables we’re hauling up off the ocean floor, if they’re switched back on by accident for any reason while we’re working on them that could kill one of us,’ says Kearns.

Nor is it just the cables themselves that pose a danger to the crew of the Wave Sentinel. The surface of the deck is dominated by massive chunks of engineering and haulage equipment all used for the fastest possible retrieval and repair of destroyed cable. There are also openings into the three vast tanks below deck, each of which can hold almost three tons of cable for laying. Navigating the wet deck is tough enough in calm waters, let alone on the high seas under full power.

A £4.5 million ROV scours the sea bed in search of a broken cable

The most impressive piece of kit on deck is the ship’s £4.5 million remote operated vehicle (ROV) which is the size of a small car complete with banks of thrusters, spotlights, radar equipment and cameras, and fully tooled up with cutting, lifting and blasting equipment. Once above a cable break (located by software within the repeaters attached at intervals along the cable on the seabed), the ROV is lowered into the water and controlled by a pilot at a giant bank of screens on board the Wave Sentinel to locate and retrieve the broken ends.

Capable of working almost four miles below the surface, ROVs are an example of technology at its finest in the battle to keep the internet running. However, many stretches of cable run deeper than even the ROV can handle, with some almost six miles down. For these repairs, the crew of the Wave Sentinel turn to much more basic technology, the grapnel. Simply a giant metal hook on the end of an enormous line, the grapnel is dropped to the seabed as the ship trawls in the area of the cable. Wave Sentinel's cable engineer, George Hams, says, 'When you think about what we're trying to do – grab a relatively small cable several miles beneath us in the middle of the ocean with a large hook we can't even see – you'd think it would never work. But it does'.

To avoid repeatedly pulling up an empty grapnel as the ship pitches and yaws, sophisticated sensors on the winching machinery monitor tension on the line. It’s only hauled up when the tension increases significantly enough to suggest they’ve genuinely located what they want.

Whether by ROV or grapnel, once the broken cable is found, the parted ends are raised to the surface, brought together on the ship’s deck and then the painstaking work of reconnecting them begins. Compared to the heavy lifting and monster machinery involved in retrieval, this side of the business is precise, requiring steady hands and absolute calm under pressure. Add in violent storms, a ship heaving like a rollercoaster and the exhaustion of weeks at sea travelling between jobs and the task of repairing a cable becomes even tougher.

As Hams says, ‘Once the cable ends are on board ready for repair, the guys take a few minutes to refocus and get their heart rates back down – this is very delicate work.’

When you realise some cables can carry as many as 192 fibres, none wider than a human hair, and they all need rejoining to their exact opposites, you can see how this job can quickly become an epic test of stamina and patience.

The Wave Sentinel at sea. It's tough enough keeping your dinner down in these conditions,

let alone reconecting minute fibre optic cables no wider than a human hair

Despite the on-going repairs, internet users barely register these line breaks. They cause little more than a fractional delay in page loading times as traffic is almost instantly re-routed onto other cables until the break is repaired. This re-routing is made possible by the cable laying frenzy that occurred during the late-Nineties dotcom boom.

Stellar projections of money to be made on the internet defied all previous economic rhyme or reason, stoking mass financial hysteria around all matters web-related. This saw billions of pounds flooded into the building of cable networks to support the brave new internet dawn as it was poised to destroy all existing business and commerce.

As we now know, while the Nineties did bring the digital age to life, the internet did not wipe out all other business models overnight as feverishly predicted, and the internet investment bubble burst spectacularly in 2001 with thousands of once highly-valued new web ventures vanishing overnight.

But the cables remained, and as the dust settled new buyers picked off these assets from the bankrupt telecoms companies who had installed them as the original investors swallowed their losses. The result is a lot of cable beneath the seas.

As Elliott puts it, ‘After the bust, buyers picked up bargains from the huge period of overbuilding between 1999 and 2002 which left a lot of cables, particularly in the North Atlantic.’

But if 2014’s capacity crunch happens, the days of seamless re-routing will be over which could leave Britain in a similar situation to countries currently without our abundant choice of traffic routes. In these locations, cable breaks cause major problems.

As recently as last year millions of web users in India, the Middle East and Asia saw their connections wiped out after the main 24,500 mile cable connecting these regions was cut, apparently by a stray ship’s anchor. With few alternative routes available to traffic in this area, over half of the online traffic in the affected countries simply ground to a halt until the break could be repaired.

This problem is much older than the internet.

‘Fishermen have been hitting cables since the dawn of time,’ says Global Marine’s Connor. ‘When the very first commercial cable went in between Dover and Calais in 1850 (a single copper line wrapped in rubbery tree sap), it lasted about five minutes. Reports later came in from fishermen nearby about this amazing new type of seaweed they’d found with a coppery core…’, he laughs.

It’s not just fishermen wreaking havoc on the web’s essential undersea network either.

‘The ocean beds are still some of the least explored areas on this planet,’ says Kearns. ‘Although fishing activity and ships anchors are the main causes of cable breaks nowadays, underwater earthquakes and volcanoes are close behind. And these make for the toughest repairs because they can bury a deep-sea cable beneath hundreds of metres of rubble for miles at a time making getting hold of it to repair almost impossible.’

But whether it be errant anchors, ill-placed trawler nets, or huge undersea tremors knocking cables out, the Wave Sentinel and her sister ships know their business.

‘Occasionally we need a few extra passes to locate a cable, but we’ve never failed to find one yet,’ says Hams proudly.

So no matter how far technology pushes the internet envelope, how fast our home connections become or quite who pays for it all, some things will never change.

Cables will keep being cut, Kearns and his crew will still be out there putting them back together again, and even if the government’s aim of 10Mbps streaming to every UK household does reach Cornwall, you can bet it will still remain one of the slowest places in Britain – and perfect for a spot of sandcastle-building on a quiet, anonymous stretch of beach.


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