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Subsea Cable Mythbusters

Subsea Cable Mythbusters

Toptana's industry partner overseeing design and construction, Assured Communications, helps dispel some of the misconceptions about what goes on with connectivity under the sea, based on their years of telecommunications industry experience. Here are some insights from Joel Ogren, the team's CEO and Business Development and Brian Dahl, COO.

Joel Ogren

To be clear, we’re not the first (and certainly not the last) that have felt the need to bust some myths in the subsea cable space. Telegeography has been doing this – and entertaining everyone in the process – for years (seriously, check them out).

But we’d be remiss if we didn’t do our part to help reinforce efforts to dispel some of the misconceptions we’ve heard firsthand about what goes on with connectivity under the sea. So, as the team from Assured Communications, Toptana’s partner on the design and development of this incredible new venture, we’re here with some further info to help to set the record straight on a few things that we’ve heard over the years.

Let’s get into it – here are four myths that we think need clearing up.

Myth 1: Internet connectivity is already in the ground and available everywhere.

Fact: If only this were true! But those invisible waves of wifi in the air still need to originate from a physical source. In more developed urban and suburban areas of the country (and the world), most of us are fortunate enough to be in close enough physical proximity to fiber broadband – it’s not too difficult to deliver that connectivity all the way to your doorstep (it’s the “last mile” of the connectivity blueprint).

But the “last mile” needs a middle mile and a first mile in order to work. Here’s a diagram to illustrate.

That first and middle mile is what we’re building with Toptana Technologies. In order to provide the capacity that’s needed for the growing number of internet users around the world, we need to build more cable landing stations and lay more cables (and maintain route diversity, but that’s another topic). To bring fiber internet everywhere, that means constructing networks and connection points in proximity to everywhere. There are lots of pockets of the United States and around the world where that infrastructure isn’t available yet. But that’s what we (and a lot of others in the telecoms space) are working on.

To summarize all this information, the first mile, where the data lives, needs to be connected to the middle mile via fiber in order to deliver the amount of bandwidth needed to distribute to the last mile. The last mile of delivery can be delivered by different methods – fiber, cellular or microwave, to name a few – but without the first mile and the middle mile the last mile either doesn’t exist or exists with outdated technology that can’t support functions like streaming, 5G, etc. 

Myth 2: You don’t need fiber internet in remote areas. Satellite can do the job.

Fact: Sure, satellite is widely available, pretty much regardless of how remote an area may be. That’s a huge plus and it’s why many people located in rural areas rely on it. But it’s…well, not reliable. The connection is slow, it’s vulnerable to outages and signal loss due to everything from rain, wind, and physical obstructions between points. Its latency is also far below that of other solutions, especially fiber broadband. In our opinion, satellite is a “last resort” option that’s not not a long term solution, especially as fiber technology improves and offers greater reliability, capacity, and latency over time. In short, satellite is pretty much never a preferred option – sometimes it’s the only option.

Myth 3: Subsea fiber cables give off radiation, noise, or other disturbances.

Fact: The first reason that there’s confusion around this is because subsea cables is a catchall term that includes both power cables (energy) and fiber optic cables (connectivity). Both are cables on the ocean floor, but their purposes are totally different.

Size and Depth: fiber cables are typically much smaller than power cables. A fiber cable is usually no wider than a garden hose and installed in conduit that is run underneath the ocean floor or in some cases plowed directly onshore. Power cables are typically wider (when laid in longer stretches, they’re usually about 12 inches wide) and buried deeper in the sediment.

Materials: fiber cables are made with thin, fiber optic strands of glass, encased in layers of protective materials with a power element used to operate amplifiers that are along the subsea route on the ocean floor. There’s no vibration and no noise emitted from them. Power cables are made with copper and aluminum, since they’re meant to conduct electricity.

Other differences: Power cables are known to generate electromagnetic fields (EMF), depending on burial depth and how many cables are grouped together. It’s possible that EMF can distort the natural geomagnetic field that marine animals use to orient themselves around on the ocean floor, but that’s still being studied. Fiber cables generate a small amount of electromagnetic fields; all studies thus far have not indicated any environmental impact based on EMF. They pretty much sit dormant unless they need maintenance, repair, or replacement, largely unnoticed by the cargo ships, passenger ships, and fishing vessels operating above them every day.

Myth 4: Sharks like to chew on subsea cables, damaging them.

Fact: Technically this has happened. Subsea cables have been around since the 1850s – the telegraph was the international digital telecommunication. There’s probably nothing on the ocean floor, manmade or otherwise, that hasn’t at some point come into contact with a marine animal, such as a shark. And yes, sharks are known for having very pointy teeth and using them. There have been a handful of instances where, depending on the depth and placement of the cable, and whether or not sand has shifted and exposed it, a curious shark may come check it out. But it’s very rare to have a shark actually bite through a subsea fiber cable – especially since modern day cables are encased in multiple layers of cladding and protective materials (silicon gel, then sheathed in varying layers of plastic, steel wiring, copper) to make it harder for anything – a shark, a ship anchor, or anything else – to accidentally damage it. 

99.9% of sharks have never even noticed an exposed stretch of subsea cable, let alone thought about making it a chew toy when there are tastier things out there for them to go after. So, subsea cables are pretty safe.

Myth 5: Jobs in the fiber broadband/subsea cable installation space require years of tech experience and/or a four-year college degree.

Fact: Most jobs in our industry don’t require decades of experience and a lot of them don’t require college degrees. On the construction and installation side of things, this is well-paying, interesting work in high demand that some people may not realize they would qualify for. The average salary for a fiber optic technician is around $60,000, and some jobs pay as high as three times that. Considering the cost of higher education is either out of reach or not easily justifiable as an investment for some, this type of skilled career could offer an ROI that you hadn’t considered before. There’s a growing talent gap in our industry – I hope people start recognizing it and taking advantage of it.

There are more myths about subsea fiber cables, but here’s hoping we cleared up at least a few of the most common ones. We’re always ready and willing to talk more about our industry (it’s interesting, we promise), so reach out to with questions, and subscribe to our updates via the form at the bottom of this page to stay up to date on the latest developments on Toptana Technologies. There are a number of exciting new milestones ahead as we continue on our mission of bringing connectivity to the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and we can’t wait to share them with you.