by Ingrid Burrington / Nov 9, 2015

“Submarine cables don’t come up in the news that often, but if they do it seems to be in two forms: short articles reminding everyone that the Telegeography Submarine Cable Map exists, and short articles of hand-wavey reminders that submarine cables are vulnerable to harm (from tectonic plates, ship anchors, sharks, and terrorists, among others). While these are totally valid topics to explore, I often find these stories lacking in context about the various systems, geographies, and politics that shape submarine networks.

While there are lots of other super compelling aspects of submarine-cable law and policy (says the person who owns a copy of Submarine Cables: The Handbook of Law and Policy), here are two questions that might help readers take in Telegeography takes with a little less gee-whiz and a little more clarity.

For the most part, Internet submarine cables are built by consortia of international companies. The consortium method has the advantage of distributing risk on submarine-cable projects, which can range in cost from the hundreds of millions to the low billions. When they first emerged, during the postcolonial Cold War era, these consortia were made up of telecoms from different countries forming agreements with each other. Ownership and maintenance of the cables was aligned along these landing sites—the parts of the cable that ran through the U.S. might belong to AT&T; the parts running through the U.K., maybe to BT.

In the late 1990s as the Internet became increasingly privately held, venture capital began participating in these consortia as well. Perhaps the most famous early example of this shift was the FLAG network, the subject of Neal Stephenson‘s essay “Mother Earth Mother Board” (arguably the Book of Genesis in the Internet-infrastructure nerd bible). Today, many kinds of non-telecoms invest in submarine cables, including companies like Google and Facebook, who both own stakes in Pacific submarine cables.

Military agencies also build submarine cables, which do not appear on public maps. While these cables have recently been the subject of much kerfuffle over whether they are vulnerable to Russian sabotage (which, while probably a possibility, featured such so much over-the-top panic in its speculations that it basically was only missing trained Russian spy sharks), military telecommunications networks have played a crucial but not extensively reported role in legal challenges to U.S. and U.K. drone-strike operations in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan.

In 2014, the U.K.-based organization Reprieve filed a complaint with the British government against BT for its role in facilitating drone strikes based on a submarine cable. In 2012, BT accepted a contract from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to connect a military base in the U.K. to a military base in Djibouti. The court threw out the complaint, ruling that Repreive presented insufficient evidence that the cable was explicitly used in drone strikes.

More recently, a Somali man brought a legal complaint to the German government over the role that the Ramstein Air Force base played in a drone strike that killed his father. Ramstein isn’t a landing point for a submarine cable, but for a satellite uplink that connects directly to drones in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere.

A combination of submarine and terrestrial cables connects the uplink to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. While the Ramstein complaint is more about the uplink than the fiber, it and the Reprieve complaint are reminders of the scale of military network infrastructure, and the significance of that infrastructure in contemporary warfare.

For much of the history of submarine cables, many telecommunications companies were responsible for their own cable design and manufacturing, as well as fleets of cable ships (as seen in this AT&T video about their submarine-cable operations). After the first tech bubble collapsed in the late 1990s, many of the large telecoms divested themselves of their submarine-cable operations, spinning them off into separate companies.

A number of these formerly telecom-owned companies act as “turn-key” suppliers—they manufacture the cable, survey routes and obtain relevant permits, maintain fleets of cable ships, and perform maintenance and repairs. TE SubCom, the current incarnation of what used to be AT&T Submarine Systems, explains what they do in this thrilling corporate video (from that video, I strongly encourage you to go down the rabbit hole that is corporate submarine-cable videos, it will probably transform your life forever).

The design of submarine-cable routes and the decision of where to place them is a lengthy, complex calculation of bathymetry, geography, local land-use laws, international law, and the law of the sea. For a long time it was also a calculation heavily shaped by legacy—a lot of Internet cables run along similar routes and to similar sites as their telegraph predecessors, to major coastal cities throughout the world. There is an assumption that these routes are reliable and secure, as they’ve been tried and maintained in the past.

interview with Nicole Starosielski

The history of modern telecommunications development traces the expansion of empire. The British telegraph submarine-cable system the All-Red Line, for example, is kind of just a cool map of Places Britain Used To Own. Today, a number of the landing sites on the All-Red Line remain landing sites for submarine cables. As Nicole Starosielski documents in her book The Undersea Network, this pattern of submarine cables following empire came to reflect the new mode of empire: globalization.

During the Cold War, landing sites began to shift away from central port cities to more rural areas, recognizing that decentralizing communication networks was a far more viable security strategy in the face of nuclear war. These more remote sites were sometimes chosen purely for logistical reasons—such as the Manchester cable station, which was chosen as the site for the first continental U.S.-Hawaii cable because it’s literally the shortest distance away from Hawaii.

As ownership models moved away from strictly telecom consortia, new landing sites were built and selected because the incumbent telecom companies didn’t want the new consortia to build in their territory, as it were. Today’s submarine-cable networks are increasingly governed by logistics, bottom lines, and latency, rather than colonial control or Cold War paranoia. But they remain useful objects for understanding some of the public and private power dynamics that play across the network at the infrastructural level, literally across oceans.”

“1902 British All Red Line map, from Johnson’s The All Red Line (1903).”

British cable telegraphy in World War One: The All-Red Line
by Elizabeth Bruton

“In a previous article, we’ve discussed German cable telegraphy in World War One, and now it is time to examine British cable telegraphy in the conflict.  Much, if not all, British long-distance telecommunication relied on the “All-Red Line”, the network of British-controlled and operated electric telegraph cables stretching around the globe and so called due to the colour red (or sometimes pink) being used to designate British territories and colonies in the atlases of the period.

The “All-Red Line” was operated through a mixture of public and private enterprise with the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC) operating many of the telegraph cables in Asia, Africa, and beyond.  By the late nineteenth century, telegraphy cables from Britain stretched to all corners of the globe forming a massive international communications network of around 100,000 miles of undersea cables.

News which had previously taken up to six months to reach distant parts of the world could now be relayed in a matter of hours. In 1902 the “All Red Line” route was completed with the final stages of construction of the trans-Pacific route and connected all parts of the British empire. This telegraph network consisted of a series of cable links across the Pacific Ocean, connecting New Zealand and Australia with Vancouver and through the Trans-Canada and Atlantic lines to Europe.

Submarine telegraph cables remained the only fast means of international communication for 75 years until the development of wireless telegraphy at the end of the nineteenth century. Security and reliability were an important part of this vast international telecommunications network: there were multiple redundancies so that even if one cable was cut, a message could be sent through many other routes, operating a bit like the modern day Internet (which actually has far more redundancies built in).

Further security was added in the location of telegraph line landfall: the “All-Red Line” was designed to only made landfall in British colonies or British-controlled territories although this may have compromised on occasionally. In 1902 and around the time that the All-Red Line was completed, the Committee of Imperial Defence was established by the then British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and was made responsible for research and some coordination of British military strategy.

In 1911 and with the possibility of a war in Europe looming, the committee analysed the All-Red Line and concluded that it would be essentially impossible for Britain to be isolated from her telegraph network due to the redundancy built into the network: 49 cables would need to be cut for Britain to be cut off, 15 for Canada, and 5 for South Africa. Further to this, Britain and British telegraph companies owned and controlled most of the apparatus needed to cut or repair telegraph cables and also had a superior navy to control the seas.

As a resullt, when war broke out in August 1914 and some isolated telegraph stations such as the one at Cocos Islands asked for further security and military protection due to the risk of German attack, they got none and were left to their own devices in terms of protection.  Some of the staff on the Cocos Island station constructed a fake telegraph cable and this was one that was cut by the Germans in their attack on the island in November 1914 and so telegraph communication via this telegraph station was able to continue.

Indeed, as a result of the redundancies built into the system and British naval superiority, the “All-Red Line” – a network which was strategically important to businesses, government, and military and a keystone in British imperial activities – remained robust, secure, and essentially uninterrupted for the duration of the war.”

by Neal Stephenson / 12.01.96

Lord Kelvin’s Legacy
“Kelvin founded the cable industry by understanding the science, and developing the technology, that made it work. His legacy is the ongoing domination of the cable-laying industry by the British, and his monument is concealed beneath the waves: the ever growing web of submarine cables joining continents together. Bell founded the telephone industry. His legacy was the Bell System, and his monument was strung up on poles for all to see: the network of telephone wires that eventually found its way into virtually every building in the developed world. Bell founded New England Telephone Company, which eventually was absorbed into the Bell System.

It never completely lost its identity, though, and it never forgot its connection to Alexander Graham Bell—it even moved Bell’s laboratory into its corporate headquarters in Boston. After the breakup of the Bell System in the early 1980s, New England Telephone and its sibling Baby Bell, New York Telephone, joined together to form a new company called Nynex, whose loyal soldiers are eager to make it clear that they see themselves as the true heirs of Bell’s legacy. Now, Nynex and Cable & Wireless, the brainchildren of Bell and Kelvin, the two supreme ninja hacker mage lords of global telecommunications, have formed an alliance to challenge AT&T and all the other old monopolies.

We know how the first two acts of the story are going to go: In late 1997, with the completion of FLAG, Luke (“Nynex”) Skywalker, backed up on his Oedipal quest by the heavy shipping iron of Han (“Cable & Wireless”) Solo, will drop a bomb down the Death Star’s ventilation shaft. In 1999, with the completion of SEA-ME-WE 3, the Empire will Strike Back. There is talk of a FLAG 2, which might represent some kind of a Return of the Jedi scenario.

But once the first FLAG has been built, everyone’s going to get into the act—it’s going to lead to a general rebellion. “FLAG will change the way things are done. They are setting a benchmark,” says Dave Handley, the cable layer. And Mercogliano makes a persuasive case that national telecom monopolies will be so preoccupied, over the next decade, with building the “last mile” and getting their acts together in a competitive environment that they’ll have no choice but to leave cable laying to the entrepreneurs.

That’s the simple view of what FLAG represents. It is important to remember, though, that companies like Cable & Wireless and Nynex are not really heroic antimonopolists. A victory for FLAG doesn’t lead to a pat ending like in Star Wars—it does not get us into an idealized free market.

“One thing to bear in mind is that Cable & Wireless is a club and they are rigorously anticompetitive wherever they have the opportunity,” said Doug Barnes, the cypherpunk. “Nynex and the other Baby Bells are self-righteously trying to crack open other companies’ monopolies while simultaneously trying to hold onto their domestic ones. The FLAG folks are merely clubs with a smidgin more vision, enough business sense to properly reward talent, and a profound desire to make a great pile of money.”

There has been a lot of fuss in the last few years concerning the 50th anniversary of the invention of the computer. Debates have raged over who invented the computer: Atanasoff or Mauchly or Turing? The only thing that has been demonstrated is that, depending on how you define computer, any one of the above, and several others besides, can be said to have invented it. Oddly enough, this debate comes at a time when stand-alone computers are seeming less and less significant and the Internet more so.

Whether or not you agree that “the network is the computer,” a phrase Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems recently coined, you can’t dispute that moving information around seems to have much broader appeal than processing it. Many more people are interested in email and the Web than were interested in databases and spreadsheets. Yet little attention has been paid to the historical antecedents of the Internet—perhaps partly because these cable technologies are much older and less accessible and partly because many Net people want so badly to believe that the Net is fundamentally new and unique. Analog is seen as old and bad, and so many people assume that the communications systems of old were strictly analog and have just now been upgraded to digital.

This overlooks much history and totally misconstrues the technology. The first cables carried telegraphy, which is as purely digital as anything that goes on inside your computer. The cables were designed that way because the hackers of a century and a half ago understood perfectly well why digital was better. A single bit of code passing down a wire from Porthcurno to the Azores was apt to be in sorry shape by the time it arrived, but precisely because it was a bit, it could easily be abstracted from the noise, then recognized, regenerated, and transmitted anew.

The world has actually been wired together by digital communications systems for a century and a half. Nothing that has happened during that time compares in its impact to the first exchange of messages between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan in 1858. That was so impressive that a mob of celebrants poured into the streets of New York and set fire to City Hall.”



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