Everything You Need to Know About the Wet Net (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Next time you stream, spare a thought for the underwater fiber-optic cables.

by Elvia Wilk
Nov 23 2018, 5:51pm

You spill a drop of water on your computer keyboard. Panic ensues. Water and electronics—they seem like natural enemies. And yet, for all the metaphors of the evaporated cloud, most of the internet’s physical infrastructure is actually underwater. Nearly all of intercontinental data travels through millions of miles of fiber-optic cables laid across the ocean floor. Currently there are more than 350 submarine cable lines coast to coast—and many more lines are under construction, as more of the planet becomes wired in order to, paradoxically, let us go wireless.

In 1842, Samuel F. B. Morse (of Morse Code fame) proved the viability of underwater telegraphy by successfully sending a message through a submerged wire coated in hemp and rubber. After much trial and error, the first transatlantic communication cable was completed in 1858, connecting North America and Great Britain. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that an intercontinental telephone system was constructed, which was soon followed by television and then data transmission cables.

Installing cables thousands of miles below the ocean surface is expensive and time-consuming; special ships are needed to lay and secure the network, and deep-sea divers often have to be sent out for maintenance and repairs. Despite the thick sheaths the wire bundles are coated in, they can be damaged by sea life—sharks have been caught nibbling—fishing trawlers, earthquakes, hurricanes, and more nefarious types of meddling. For years, Russian submarines and ships have been seen lurking around the locations of key intercontinental cables, leading to speculations about cyberattacks whenever tensions with Russia are running particularly high. Oh, and of course the NSA has been caught wiretapping submarine cables, those main arteries of data flow.

Until recently the construction and maintenance of submarine cables have been shared by conglomerates of telecom operators, who each own a portion of the data traveling through the cable. But as the internet’s infrastructure becomes increasingly privatized, tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have naturally begun laying their own underwater cable systems for exclusive use. Researchers at Microsoft also recently realized that, if the cables are down there, why not the servers too? In 2015, the company tossed a server into the deep waters off the coast of California, where it was hooked up directly to an existing undersea cable. The reason: frigid waters keep the servers from overheating. Most internet servers are housed in remote and landlocked server farms, where they suck up 2-3% of the world’s electricity each year to stay running, and lot of that energy is used just for cooling.

In 2011 most of Armenia lost internet access when a Georgian woman hunting for scrap metal accidentally dug up a fiber-optic cable line. Like most types of infrastructure, you only notice it when it breaks—and perhaps especially when it comes to the internet, it’s all too easy to forget how complex, messy, and vulnerable the substructure of daily life online is. In other words: do you know where your email is? Not to put a damper on your correspondence, but maybe take this as a reminder to back up your inbox on a hard drive in a dry place.

wet net