British Telecom, one of the biggest telephone and internet service providers in the UK, have taken the step of removing its dial-up service, with the reasoning that only a “tiny number” of its customers use that specific service. can i buy cigars online As broadband becomes increasingly popular, very few services now offer dial-up internet, […]
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Most of us have called family and friends on the internet using VoIP software such as Skype. Now many broadband providers are offering VoIP packages specifically tailored to businesses so they are no longer limited to how they communicate and can cut unnecessary costs. But what is VoIP and how can it transform the way […]
Beetel Teletech which is a company of the Bharti Enterprises group, had launched the Beetel 3G Max portable wireless hotspot device, in our country. This device connects itself with a mobile phone carrier and it is capable of giving Internet access up to 5 devices.The company had named it as the Beetel 3G Max. This […]
Cisco launched Cisco Umi (pronounced “you” “me”), a consumer telepresence solution which brings high definition video conferencing to your living room which brings you just that coupled with a HDMI capable setup box and an elegantly designed camera to be housed just on top of your pre-existing LCD TV. Therefore seeing and talking to your […]
Hastily snapped on a camera-phone, the picture below shows where the internet feeds into Britain from New York. The super-high-speed cable is now hidden under six feet of Cornish beach – which is 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 scientists think of something… fast
By Warren Pole
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, that is – 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 it meant.
It’s ironic, then, what children building sandcastles on the Cornish beach in this main picture would find if they dug down six feet. There they would see the Atlantic’s newest internet connection – lasers fire the signal along the cable at the speed of light.
In the unlikely event that 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 carried by a vast cable network, thousands of miles of which snake under the oceans.
The two busiest internet hubs are New York and London, and nine cables link them. But the one pictured above is the Atlantic’s newest and most advanced submarine cable system. It is so powerful that it could carry the entire internet content in both directions even if the other eight lines failed simultaneously.
It travels 3,800 miles along the 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 terrorist sabotage, hence the grainy nature of our pictures – they were snapped by one of the cabling 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 that links one postage-stamp-sized village 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 lies just half a mile away you might wonder why such a tiny and remote farm would have such a high-quality driveway 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 that houses Britain’s most powerful internet connection. The statistics of the system are astonishing.
You don’t want to look down the cable. If it was on, it could burn your retina out in seconds
The actual cable itself isn’t much wider than a garden hose. But flashing through the eight fibre-optic lines 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 can fire down the cable, each single piece taking 0.00072 seconds to complete the 7,600-mile return journey from here to the US.
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, one here in the UK, the other in New York, that blast the signal down the fibre-optic lines. As no light source is powerful enough to retain its intensity over such vast distances, electrical repeaters costing £1 million each – and fed by a 10,000-volt current that runs through the cable itself – are attached at 30-mile intervals to amplify the signal.
The immense and consistent power of the repeaters is another good reason why the team of engineers manning the cable station 24 hours a day work very carefully. Not only could one slip on their part cut the connection, losing huge amounts of revenue, it could give them a deadly electric shock or fire a searing microscopic laser beam at them.
‘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.’
Although there have been undersea cables connecting Britain and the US since the late 19th century, until 1956 these could only handle Morse code.
They were then upgraded to handle 36 simultaneous telephone calls. But it was the introduction in 1988 of the first fibre-optic system that saw the big leap forward – suddenly a single cable could carry 2,500 calls at once. In the mid-Nineties, with the introduction of optical amplifiers that boosted laser signals, the capacity on a single cable rose to the equivalent of 60 million phone calls. Apollo’s cable can transfer data equivalent to 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 capacity seems to be inexorable. In the past 15 years people have repeatedly said expansion can’t go any further, 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’re increasingly dependent on the web, where we take for granted the almost limitless capacity to view, access and download information, what if this Micawberish assumption is misplaced? According to communications research specialist TeleGeography, we could be facing a huge shortfall in transatlantic cable capacity.
TeleGeography’s director of research Stephan Beckert says: ‘There is potential for a total capacity across the Atlantic of about 39 terabits per second (Tbps), of which 25 per cent is currently being used. But while it would seem this leaves plenty spare, we project demand will exceed 39Tbps by 2014.’
In fact, Alan Mauldin, one of the company’s analysts, suggests that transatlantic cable operators and buyers are facing a ‘slow-motion crisis’.
Amid all this, is the Government’s target of rolling out 10Mbps broadband – allowing, for example, complete movies to be downloaded in seconds – for the whole of the UK by 2013 viable?
‘That is technologically realistic and quite possible already,’ says Elliott. ‘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 US is falling as more of the content we access comes from Europe along other routes. The bigger question is who’s going to pay for it?’
If 2014′s transatlantic capacity crunch really does hit, then new cables will have to be laid. But 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 via smaller hubs on to homes and businesses. Both Virgin Media and BT have spearheaded fibre-optic broadband 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 tax on all phone lines to make up 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.’
Last year millions of web users in India and Asia saw connections wiped out after a main 24,500 mile cable was cut by a ship’s anchor
Leading-edge undersea cables 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 income they generate, are wiped out instantly.
It’s up to repair ships such as the 12,000-ton Wave Sentinel to find the break and fix it, fast. The boat is one of four ships stationed in the Atlantic on permanent standby to repair cable breaks anywhere within the 40 million square miles of ocean. When these ships are called out, someone gets a very hefty bill with the average repair costing more than £500,000.
‘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.’
Cable breaks happen far more often than you might think.
‘Last year we were at sea for 11 months of the year, and made around 30 repairs,’ says Kearns. ‘We’ve made nine in the past four months already so it doesn’t look like being any quieter this year either.’
At the time of my visit, Wave Sentinel was at rest in Portland Harbour, Dorset, 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,’ says Kearns. ‘You’re so far away from any rescue, and with 10,000 volts running through the cables, if they’re switched back on by accident for any reason while we’re working on them, that could kill one of us.’
Nor is it just the cables themselves that pose a danger to the crew of Wave Sentinel. The surface of the deck is dominated by the engineering and haulage equipment used for the fastest possible retrieval of damaged cable. There are also openings into three vast tanks below deck, each of which can hold almost three tons of cable. Navigating the wet deck is tough enough in calm waters, let alone on the high seas under full power.
The most impressive piece of kit on deck is the £4.5 million remote-operated vehicle (ROV). The size of a small car, it has banks of thrusters, spotlights, radar equipment and cameras, and is tooled up with cutting, lifting and blasting equipment. Once above a cable break (located by software within the electrical repeaters), the ROV is lowered into the water and controlled by a pilot at a bank of screens on board Wave Sentinel.
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 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.
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 on to 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 economic rhyme or reason, stoking mass financial hysteria around all matters web-related. This saw billions of pounds poured 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. The internet investment bubble burst spectacularly in 2001 with thousands of once highly-valued web ventures vanishing overnight.
But the cables remained, and as the dust settled, buyers picked off these assets from the bankrupt telecoms companies that had installed them, as the original investors swallowed their losses.
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, located in the Mediterranean, was cut, apparently by a ship’s anchor. With few alternative routes available, over half of the internet traffic in the affected countries simply ground to a halt until the break could be repaired. But this problem is much older than the internet.
‘Fishermen hitting cables is nothing new,’ says Global Marine’s Kevin 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 the 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 the cable to repair it almost impossible.’
But whether it be errant anchors, ill-placed trawler nets, or huge undersea tremors knocking cables out, 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 internet technology advances, 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.