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 occurs every so often, but Saturday’s incident represents a selected stroke of bad timing. The cable severed was already overworked, rerouting data from 3 other cables that were unintentionally severed every week earlier within the crimson Sea. All mentioned, these fiber-optic channels are the spine of East Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure. Now one single undersea fiber-optic link is left to carry all of the load for all of East Africa, slowing internet connections in Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Sudan by means of 20 % till maintenance 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 actually. Fiber optic communication, for all of its shortcomings, is if truth be told beautiful wonderful, and it’s getting better via the yr. injuries do occur. In 2006 earthquakes in the Luzon Strait close to Taiwan severed seven of 9 cables and wrought havoc on communications networks for weeks, and two times in 2008 cables within the Mediterranean had been broken, disrupting verbal exchanges within the middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent (and that’s just two contemporary examples–there are lots of, extra). 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 prime-frequency signals into optical fiber in the form of mild. The fiber is terribly clear so the sign doesn’t fade over distance. There’s no fog or rain or different atmospheric moisture within to interfere with the sign, so it continues its integrity whether touring around the room or around the Pacific. whilst you run out of capacity, you lay a brand new cable. Or, even better, you can dial up the capability within 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 fending off failures like the only East Africa is flirting with is redundancy, Sirbu says. “if you have a look at the us, we’ve cable touchdown websites at numerous puts, from Florida to Maine and all up and down the West Coast as smartly,” Sirbu says. “Given the interconnection of networks world wide, if fiber going into one touchdown area is damaged there is fiber touchdown at other places in order to nonetheless be operational. but Africa is one of the continent least densely served by way of fiber optics, especially when in comparison to Europe, North the us, or East Asia. They’re in a riskier place.”
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.
“those reduces are at all times enjoyable because these are the moments that remind everybody that the cables are there,” Blum says. “This lower particularly is extra exciting as it’s the first time you actually get to peer what it manner for East Africa to have fiber while 3 years in the past it didn’t. So I expectantly have a look at it the wrong way up. Its most effective the improbable capability of fiber optic era that has allowed the web to progress the world over. You wouldn’t have this international internet without fiber optics–that’s what’s so amazing about it.”