On Saturday, a ship waiting to enter the Kenyan port city of Mombasa wandered into a restricted area and dropped its anchor, inadvertently severing a major undersea Internet and phone link to East Africa. This kind of thing happens from time to time, but Saturday's incident represents a particular stroke of bad timing. The cable severed was already overworked, rerouting data from three other cables that were accidentally severed a week prior in the Red Sea. All said, these fiber-optic channels are the backbone of East Africa's telecommunications infrastructure. Now one single undersea fiber-optic link is left to carry the entire load for all of East Africa, slowing internet connections in Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Sudan by 20 percent until repairs are made, a process that could take weeks.
Before plugging into the high-capacity subsea fiber optic network three years ago, most Internet traffic in East Africa moved through expensive satellite connections or painfully slow telephone lines. Since then economies in the region have come to rely on their increased connectivity, so this weekend's incident comes dangerously close to spelling a small economic disaster. It also raises a larger question: Why, when global economies and day-to-day life are so reliant on access to the Internet, are we still relying on these seemingly vulnerable undersea cables, these accident-prone physical "tubes" connecting continents across the oceans? Why, in a world that's increasingly wireless, are we still so wired? Isn't there a better way to connect the globe?
The answer is: Not really. Fiber optic communication, for all of its shortcomings, is actually pretty amazing, and it's getting better by the year. Accidents do happen. In 2006 earthquakes in the Luzon Strait near Taiwan severed seven of nine cables and wrought havoc on communications networks for weeks, and twice in 2008 cables in the Mediterranean were damaged, disrupting communications in the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent (and that's just two recent examples--there are many, many more). But there's really no technology that can touch our current fiber optics technology. The solution to problems like those East Africa is currently experiencing is not less fiber optic cable, but more.
"It's amazing that we're reliant on these physical links, but the reason we are is because of the kind of quantum leaps that fiber optic technology offers," says Andrew Blum, author of the forthcoming book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. The physical cables running along (and sometimes under) the seabed carry huge volumes of data in the form of light, orders of magnitude more data than can be packed into radio signals that might be beamed wirelessly via satellites or antenna towers. The idea of replacing those cables with some kind of through-the-air technology is tempting, but for the foreseeable future we're stuck with fiber optics.
"The problem is that the volumes of data we're talking about require a very wide spectrum of frequencies," Marvin Sirbu, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says. "And in order to get a wide spectrum of frequencies you need to get into very high-frequency electromagnetic waves. Light waves are very, very high-frequency. If you look at the frequencies we normally think of as radio waves, to find that much spectrum you'd have to be at frequencies so high that--like light--they fade in fog or in rain, and therefore can't really be used to go to a satellite and back, or even over long distances on the ground."
Instead, Sirbu says, we put those high-frequency signals into optical fiber in the form of light. The fiber is extremely transparent so the signal doesn't fade over distance. There's no fog or rain or other atmospheric moisture inside to interfere with the signal, so it maintains its integrity whether traveling across the room or across the Pacific. When you run out of capacity, you lay a new cable. Or, even better, you can dial up the capacity in the cables already laid.
This is where fiber optics creates those "quantum leaps" forward, says Blum. The standard operating unit for fiber optics right now is something like 10-gigabits per second. But new optical modules that are being swapped into common systems boost that capacity to 40 or even 100 gigabits per second. The same cables can then carry ten times more capacity, growing the system without laying a single new cable on the seafloor. Other tricks--involving everything from new ways of channeling signals to implementing lenses known as "time telescopes" to manipulate light pulses--could potentially keep that capacity growing at a rapid pace for the foreseeable future.
The key to averting disasters like the one East Africa is flirting with is redundancy, Sirbu says. "If you look at the U.S., we have cable landing sites at many different places, from Florida to Maine and all up and down the West Coast as well," Sirbu says. "Given the interconnection of networks around the world, if fiber going into one landing location is broken there is fiber landing at other locations that will still be operational. But Africa is probably the continent least densely served by fiber optics, especially when compared to Europe, North America, or East Asia. They're in a riskier position."
That's a problem for East Africa, particularly in a situation like this wherein two separate incidents have severed two of the three main fiber optic nerves feeding data into and out of the region. And while it seems that vulnerable undersea cables are the cause of the region's current connectivity woes, the key to ensuring that East Africa doesn't find its communications infrastructure hanging by a single fiber optic thread ever again--to ensure it doesn't end up temporarily back in the days of dial-up and satellite signals--is route diversity. In other words, the answer is more fiber optics cables, not fewer.
"These cuts are always exciting because these are the moments that remind everyone that the cables are there," Blum says. "This cut in particular is more exciting because it's the first time you really get to see what it means for East Africa to have fiber when three years ago it didn't. So I optimistically look at it upside down. Its only the incredible capacity of fiber optic technology that has allowed the Internet to progress across the world. You wouldn't have this global Internet without fiber optics--that's what's so amazing about it."
Wireless is infinitely more susceptible to interference, way less secure, and an all around bad choice for high bandwidth use. That is true on the small scale with local wireless networks and it is definitely true on the large scale. Wireless will NOT compete with wired communications for speed and reliability. Sure, Africa could deal with a spotty wireless internet trunk to keep them mostly connected to the rest of the world, but intercontinental links between places such as the US and UK require far more stability and speed than wireless could ever hope to offer.
Wireless connections are best left ONLY for mobile devices or temporary setups. If your device is placed in a spot where it isn't going to move, then it should not be using a wireless connection.
I have read, every country could use a little more fiber in their diets!
See life in all its beautiful colors, and
from different perspectives too!
Better idea, use entanglement theory on objects. As one atom changes slightly the other over an indeterminate distance changes. then have said entangled objects alter in the form of digital information. It would be slower than fiber optics, but zero interference and distance and capital investment would be lower. The laying and maintaining of lines and maintenance. Heard it here first, I want royalties if this gets used in transmission if classified data!!! Wouldnt even have to encrypt gov files impossible to wire tap or decode wireless signals.
You're thinking to narrowly when it comes to the kinds of wireless one might use for intercontinental data links. Laser link designers have been able to overcome atmospheric interference and they will soon be ready for commercial use. A laser link has the same bandwidth potential as fiber and is just as secure since it is focused on a single point. Once they iron out using them on UAVs at 65,000 feet the next step will be putting it on a satellite.
Some reading on the subject:
Just because a nation has insufficient infrastructure to offer redundancy is no reason to question the validity of mature an robust technologies. Wireless links of what ever technology will be just as vulnerable to human error and still carry the same drawbacks that prompted the shift from wireless to fiber in the first place.
They just need to plow it in better and build more. The internet and other communications are not going away.
It is notable that, while short-ranged lasers outside Fiber Optic Cable(FOC) may be highly useful through our atmosphere, at longer ranges light wavelengths will need an entirely new environment for long-range transmission. Indeed, now that it is becoming more obvious that information density is a primary coefficient of wealth generation, that may follow naturally. We already have a trend that will place more people in an environment where lasers work without encumbrance. Tourism is coming to LEO Space, and the high-priced tourists there will want to be in touch as much as at home, at need.
That will mean laser communication. Even in LEO, a laser system *between* low-earth-orbit (LEO comsats) will allow a message to be lasered to a LEO comsat system, and distributed among its satellites, each of which can then beam down a part of the message, which then dumps it into the fiber-optic net on the ground, and rapidly sends each piece to the message's destination.
Eventually, some who work at higher information densities will notice you have a better information density if you stay in orbit. As settlements are formed in cis-lunar space we will see that the information density there is much higher than on Earth, because, except for what will be "the golden 100 meters" into a habitat, laser transmission through vacuum will work fine without FOC. Indeed it will eventually work at even smaller bandwidths, and higher information flows than through FOC.
It may well be that the primary resource of Space that lures people there is that they can have the most information dense environment ever available to humans, which means more wealth. Humans have always followed the flows of wealth in their settlements around the world. It would be no surprise if they continued that off-world as well.
I read the article and OK, fiber does have it's physical limitations so what?
There is a bigger problem on the horizon. Bufferbloat.
Hmmm! The archaic ship wandered into a restricted area (where were the Restrictors?) and the Captain dropped his Anchor (made of Razor Blades and Clamps?).
Well, the cable has been cut, so we should be thinking about how to prevent another cut somewhere, although we should also recognize that the contractor needs to pay wages, etc.
Pls don't crucify me - just doing a little wandering (wondering?) of my own... must be all these CMEs and rogue Planets.
It seems like the problem isn't as much to do with the limitations of optical fibers as it is about the need to better protect them in harsh environments. It seems to me that what is needed is an uncrushable shield for the fibers made with nano tube technology. Make the fiber optic cable indestructible and it could even be buried in the ocean floor secure from any kind of eavesdropping.
No mention of propagation delays -- another big reason for going undersea instead of satellite.
Doesn't anyone remember the terrible delays we used to encounter on long-distance telephone calls via satellite? Long delays between replys from the other end.
Satellite delays are considered objectionable for many forms of communication.
Data rates are pushing undersea cables today. In the past it was propagation delays.
I think Marvin needs to open the physics books again. He states that "The fiber is extremely transparent so the signal doesn’t fade over distance. There’s no fog or rain or other atmospheric moisture inside to interfere with the signal, so it maintains its integrity whether traveling across the room or across the Pacific" - PLAIN FALSE AND UNINFORMED
Basis physics tells us that light traveling down an optical fiber will fade (attenuate) over distance which is why optical amplifiers exist. Light traveling down an optical fiber does not have to combat fog or rain but instead has to combat self-phase modulation, chromatic dispersion, 1st and 2nd order polarization mode dispersion, polarization dependent loss, stimulated Brillouin scattering, stimulated Raman scattering, four-wave mixing, modulation instability, and cross-phase modulation, to name a few impairments.
Does this guy really work as an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University? If so, that is just sad.
I think you mean "wreaked havoc," since "wrought" is an archaic past participle of "work."