The Internet as We Know It Depends on 22 Ships

Inside the world of undersea cable repair
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 18, 2024 8:00 AM CDT
The Internet as We Know It Depends on 22 Ships
   (Getty Images / Dragon Claws)

When you think of what lurks in the ocean's depths, fiber-optic cables probably don't come to mind. They should. As Josh Dzieza reports in a lengthy piece for the Verge, there are some 800,000 miles of these cables running through our oceans that keep the world as we know it chugging along. They carry 99% of the planet's data—should they all fail at once, satellites would keep less than 1% of things going. In that total-failure hypothetical, "modern civilization would cease to function," writes Dzieza, in large part because the financial system would abruptly stop working. While his piece digs into the particulars of the cables, what he really focuses on is the "secretive global network of ships" at the ready to repair them when they break.

And breaks do happen, with some regularity: about 200 times a year. When they occur, there are just 22 ships designed to repair them, staffed by an increasingly aging set of workers. Their task is one of "precision engineering on a shifting sea using heavy metal hooks and high-tension lines that, if they snap, can cut a person in half," writes Dzieza, who details the intense and "extraordinarily delicate" process through a tense lens: the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan and caused the Fukushima disaster. Seven of Japan's 12 transpacific cables were severed, likely by underwater avalanches caused by the quake. The cable maintenance ship Ocean Link worked nonstop for 154 days to repair many of them. (Read the fascinating full story here.)

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