During the Cold War, the U.S. used small, nuclear-powered spy submarines equipped with truck wheels to tap undersea Soviet communication cables. These days you simply need to own an undersea internet cable to control who gets to see the data flowing through it, which is why China wants to build its own undersea network
Reuters reports that China is planning to build its own undersea network between itself, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. These cables would be installed next to and parallel to existing undersea cables owned and operated by Western companies. The move is focusing attention on how ownership of undersea internet cables relates to data control, communications security and the new “cold war” over who controls the world’s data flow.
In 1940, if you wanted to communicate with people on the other side of the world, you would usually use radio waves. Such transmissions could be picked up by anyone with a radio antenna situated between you and the receiver you were transmitting toward. If you wanted to keep the content of your conversations secret, you would have to encrypt your conversations in coded language and coded morse code. Japan’s navy used this encryption method to communicate secret information between its headquarters and its carrier fleets as they sailed across the vast Pacific Ocean during World War II.
The problem for Japan was that the U.S. had figured out a way to decipher the encryption code that the Japanese navy was using to mask its communications. This was the main reason why the U.S. Navy knew where to find the Japanese fleet during the decisive battle of Midway in 1942. Even then, U.S. Navy dive bombers required an incredible stroke of luck to accidentally reach the Japanese carriers from the wrong direction at the right moment to get the perfect opportunity to sidestep the carriers’ air defenses and deliver multiple bombs on target, eventually sinking four Japanese carriers and thereby crippling the Japanese fleet.
Warships still depend on radio communications, but now they also have the option of sending radio comms directly upward toward the closest friendly satellite, or even using lasers to send very narrow streams of data to such satellites, which would then transfer the comms to the intended receiver. Apart from such satellite comms, almost all other communications these days are piped through undersea cables that form the backbone of the world’s internet.
We now experience an information miracle every time we click on an online video or do a search-engine search. Just 30 years ago, if you wanted to get information on something like the U.S.’s secret midget spy submarines, you would have to drive to a library and hope they have a book on the subject. If you were in a small town, your chances of finding such specific information in a library was almost zero. You would have to drive all the way to your country’s capital to visit your nation’s biggest library. Often, even the biggest libraries would not have books with such information.
Now we can just click and type and click again and get a long list of different web pages that contain text, images, diagrams and videos about secret spy submarines and any other concept under the sun. When we click on any of these links, we are sending a short data message to the server that has that web page on its storage drive. This server could be on the other side of the planet, but the message will reach it in milliseconds and then it will start sending the requested web page back to our computer or smartphone within milliseconds. If we requested a video to start playing on our device via a website we are visiting, that video will be sent as ones and zeros (bits) at a speed of around 10 to 100 million bits per second (100 mbps).
This stream of bits will then be received by our smartphones, which would group them into packets of eight bits (a packet of eight bits is called a byte). This means the sending server can create a stream of bits grouped into bytes. The receiving device then uses the position of the ones and zeros inside each byte to calculate any number between zero and 255. In the case of a video on a video platform like Rumble or YouTube, the website’s video player program will then assign each number to a pixel on the video player’s display rectangle. Each number represents a color and by lighting up each pixel with the correct color, a high-definition image is created within microseconds. Each of these images are then replaced in quick succession to create the illusion of movement, which we see as the movement in a video. Each of these images are replaced 30 times per second (30 FPS means 30 frames per second) but some videos are structured to play at up to 60 frames per second.
That’s an enormous number of ones and zeros that have to be streamed, parsed and displayed each second to create just one video on one device. When we take into account how many millions of people are asking for data to be streamed to them at any given time, we start to understand how important it is that the world’s undersea cables are capable of transmitting enormous numbers of bits per second.
To deliver so many bits per second to billions of people every moment of the day, requires cable networks that can transmit millions of bits per second at the speed of electricity or the speed of light. Internet cables used to consist of copper wire that transmit electric voltages that fluctuate at incredibly high speeds to simulate ones and zeros at a streaming rate of around 100 megabits per second, or 100 million bits per second.
Fiber optic cable is a relatively new technology that binds multiple strands of flexible glass fibers that each act as a conduit for light pulses that represent ones and zeros. Compared to copper cables, fiber optic cables are more expensive but have proven themselves to be more reliable and require less repeater modules to refresh the signal every few hundred meters. Modern internet speeds would require copper cable to have repeaters every 100 meters, while fiber cables only require repeaters every 70 kilometers. The fact that copper cables require expensive and vulnerable repeater modules every hundred meters is one reason why most undersea cables use fiber optic technology these days. Fiber cables are also lighter, more compact and therefore easier to install at the bottom of the ocean and in tight underground spaces.
Coming back to the world of library books and face-to-face discussions: The one advantage of the past was that all our thoughts and communications could be kept private, because none of our private communications were done on the internet. Back then, only TV signals and military or government communications were transmitted via radio or cable. Even if our phone discussions were tapped, such a tap would require a team using bulky tools. Now every time we send a text or email or Facebook post or YouTube comment, that communication can be automatically recorded, saved and viewed by outsiders in the near or distant future. Even documents that we store on our devices and don’t send over the internet can be accessed, copied and recorded via the internet by people with the right resources. This counts for individuals as much as it counts for corporations, governments and militaries.
This is the end of Part 1 of “China’s plan to build an undersea network.” Part 2 will follow on Tuesday April 18. In Part 2 we will look at the U.S.’s cold war spy submarines and how modern undersea cables changed the face of data control.
Image: CEC Adam Winters, Public Domain