The Incredible Growth of the Underwater Internet

A diver checks out an underwater cable in Colombia — all so you can keep forwarding those cute cat videos. Ministerio TIC Colombia [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

If you're using the Internet right now — which clearly, you are — then there's a good chance that much of the data you receive is traveling thousands of miles, passing deep under the sea through cables not much thicker than a garden hose.

The fact that we are sending data through cables under the ocean isn't exactly news. In fact, marine cables have been used to transport telegrams and the like since the first half of the 1800s. And as MNN's Melissa Breyer reported back in August, Google has been very public about its efforts to protect underwater cables from curious sharks.

What many people may not know is that the number of cables, not to mention the amount of data that travels through them, has grown like wildfire over the last few decades. Using data from TeleGeography, BuiltVisible has created a fascinating, interactive map showing the proliferation of underwater cables. The map allows you to explore the dates that cables were added between 1989 and today, the ownership of the cables, as well as a projection of the cables due to be completed between now and 2017.

Take a look at 1989, when there were a total of three modern fiber optic cables built.

cable network 1989

Now look at 1999, with 96 cables completed, including several crossing the Atlantic and Pacific. (Modern cable networks are designed for redundancy, so if one cables fail, data can be rerouted accordingly.)

BuiltVisible interactive map

And now take a look at 2014. Quite a difference, right?

underwater cables 2014

To those of us who don't spend too much time musing over the physical realities of the Internet, such information may seem esoteric at first. But there are several important lessons for all of us in this story.

Grand infrastructure schemes are alive and kicking. Whether it was the construction of the Panama Canal, the interstate highway system or the first transcontinental railroad, we often marvel at the scale of "grand projects" from the past. Yet the construction of the physical "pipes" that connect the Internet seems — in many ways — every bit as impressive as those historic, legacy projects.

Change happens, even while we're not looking. When I left school to go to university, I had never sent an email. By the time I graduated four years later, email was an indispensable tool for communication. The speed at which the Internet has become central to our lives is astounding — yet easy to underestimate due to the lack of obvious, physical infrastructure.

There are lessons here for clean tech. With renewable energy smashing records on a regular basis and electric car sales growing exponentially, similar change may already be underway in the electricity and transportation sectors. One day, we may look around and realize that everything has changed.

There's no true wilderness. The environmental impact of these undersea cables appears to be relatively insignificant, compared to all the other awful stuff we have done to the oceans. Still, the depths of the ocean was once thought of as one of the most inaccessible places on Earth, and yet those cute kitten videos you see on Facebook are often passing deep beneath the waves. There really is no place that's untouched by the human hand anymore, and that means we have to redouble our efforts to protect the oceans and everything else.

Head over to BuiltVisible to get a more complete picture of this incredible transformation and play around some more with the data available.