In two decades the internet has become part of the fabric of society. It is considered by many to be essential to modern life. A survey by Cisco in 2011 revealed that the internet was as important to some people as food and water.
Like food and water, we take the internet for granted. We just expect it to be there, we expect it to work and we care very little about the infrastructure that delivers the internet to us.
The statistic that still surprises many people is that over 98% of all communications are transported globally via a network of optical fibre submarine cables, and not via satellite. Submarine cables, such as the ones owned and maintained by European Subsea Cables Association http://www.escaeu.org member companies are the backbone of the global internet.
Over the last few years the profile of submarine cables has been improving. Two new cable systems (Hibernia Express, AE Connect) have been built across the Atlantic from America to Europe, the first in over a decade. Also new systems that are been backed by the “Big 4 tech companies” are being built and more are planned.
Unfortunately the increase in publicity of new submarine cables has also resulted in an increase in submarine cable myths that refuse to be dispelled. Every few months a story appears that advises sharks are biting submarine cables or the CIA has submarines tapping cables. Below are the top three myths, and why they’re wrong.
1. Sharks damage submarine cables. http://www.wired.com/2014/08/shark_cable/
It’s a great story guaranteed to be accompanied by a big scary picture of a shark. But there is no evidence that the internet is threatened by sharks. It appeared a few years ago in a story about a new submarine cable with a You Tube clip of a shark being encouraged to bite some kind of cable.
However, a study by the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) of all submarine cable damages from 2007 – 2014 revealed that NO damages whatsoever were attributed to shark activity.
2. Russian submarines are poised to cut submarine cables in the event of conflict. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/world/europe/russian-presence-near-undersea-cables-concerns-us.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0
A story James Bond or Jason Bourne would be proud of. It emerged late in 2015 that the USA was concerned about Russian ships and submarines loitering around submarine cables, potentially zeroing in on their locations in readiness to cut them and isolate the USA. To implement such a plan Russia would have to cut some 16 cables in the Atlantic and some 18 cables in the Pacific simultaneously. Whilst not impossible, extremely improbable. Also it is worth remembering that Russia is as dependant on the global submarine cable network as much as any other nation.
The location of submarine cables is not secret, apart from the secret ones! Information on cables is given to the fishing industry via projects such as the European focussed http://www.kis-orca.eu, so as to avoid damage to cables and capsizing of fishing boats.
3. U.S. Submarines and/ or other clandestine agencies are tapping submarine cables http://www.popsci.com/linkedin-profile-reveals-nsa-used-submarines-to-spy-on-undersea-cables
Quite simply this can’t be done without being detected by the cable owner. You cannot secretly tap a submarine optical fibre cable without being intrusive to the cable itself.
Light will not escape from an optical fibre unless the fibre is bent to such a degree that the ‘angle of incidence’ of the incoming light exceeds the ‘angle of total internal reflection’ of the fibre cladding.
To do this the cable construction would have to be stripped back to expose the bare optical fibres, this includes cutting through the power core of the cable that powers the repeating equipment. The fibre would need to be bent and detection equipment placed on it to capture any escaped light. The light that escaped would diffuse and not be a coherent beam, as it would of been within the fibre. Modern optical fibres can carry 100x100G wavelengths on each fibre that are complexly modulated http://www.xtera.com/high-level-review-new-modulation-formats-high-capacity-optical-networking/ . The chances of any diffuse light collected by detection equipment that would be readable are very slim.
You would have to do this for every optical fibre within the cables which could be around 12 for a trans-oceanic cable or possibly 300 for a shorter haul cable.
Now that’s not to say that government agencies do not have access to the information carried on the internet, but there are easier ways to do it than trying to tap a submarine optical fibre cable in the depths of the world’s oceans.
Instead of worrying about Russia and submarines, if the governments of the world are really concerned about the protection of submarine cables they should turn their attention to the two main causes of submarine cable damage…………..Fishing and Anchors! Although I think Bond and Bourne may sit that one out.
Peter Jamieson - Chairman, European Subsea Cables Association