Look to the sea for the internet, not the clouds

Our connection to the internet seems so ethereal –it’s as though data materializes out of thin air. This illusion is a result of the final hop of our connection to the internet.

image: palam.ca

I find the illusion compelling, especially when it comes to travel outside of Canada. Before the internet was readily available, I would travel with a short wave radio and string up an antenna to get news over the airwaves from home.

Now my computer substitutes for my short wave radio and the internet substitutes for the airwaves. I listen to thousands of radio stations around the world on my computer with no fading in and out. It’s easy to think of the internet as a medium of the air.

The notion of our data being in the “cloud” furthers that illusion. But, in fact, the cloud couldn’t be more grounded. The servers that provide data storage exist in concrete bunkers around the world. One of them is on Bunker Road in Kamloops. It’s owned by Q9, a Canadian company running data centres across the country.

“There is no cloud,” says Nicole Starosielski, author of The Undersea Network and adds:

“The cloud is in the ocean. It’s on the bottom of the sea floor. It goes through deep sea trenches. It goes through reefs amongst fish. It’s subject to undersea landslides. That’s where the internet is,” she told CBC Radio’s Spark. “The only time that the internet really is in the air is in that last hop when it goes from your router to your computer or from a cell tower to your phone.”

A casual looks a globe affirms that notion: seventy per cent is covered by water. Even then, considering the expense of laying cables, I would have thought that satellites carry most data. It turns out that satellites carry only a small fraction of what undersea cables do.

The fibre-optic cables that carry data though the deepest ocean trenches are fragile: only the size of a garden hose. There are about 300 cable systems that make up the backbone of the internet. And because they go from one country to another though international waters, they’re difficult to protect. If a fishing ship drops anchor on a cable, they wouldn’t even know the havoc they wreak.

The U.S. is protected by redundancy but smaller countries, especially island nations like Tahiti, are connected by just a single cable. So, if it is damaged, the internet for the whole country goes down. Despite the growing importance of the internet, the internet is surprisingly delicate.

However, it’s not fragile for wealthy countries that have multiple undersea connections. Wealth plays into the location of the cables. Cables are laid in places that are economically preferable or where they’ve been laid before.

Politics also plays a role. When Google planned to lay a cable directly between the U.S. and Hong Kong, the U.S. Justice Department vetoed it because of the dispute with China and Huawei.

Our concept of the internet matters. When you consider that the world’s servers emit as much CO2 as the airline industry, it brings the internet down to earth –and to the oceans.

 

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