Following the mysterious internet cable

April 12, 2019
by Mark Ollig

When Andrew Blum learned his internet outage was caused by a squirrel that had chewed through a copper cable, he became curious about determining where the physical part of the internet was.

Blum, a published writer and a correspondent for Wired magazine, began a personal quest to learn, firsthand, where the other end of his home internet cable went.

He wanted to pull back the curtain and see for himself what this mysterious cable was connected to out in the physical world.

“What would happen if you yanked the wire from the wall, and you started to follow it? Where would you go?” pondered Blum.

And with that, Blum embarked on a personal two-year journey; visiting the places and people that make up the physical internet.

At the 60 Street Hudson building in New York, Blum saw physical hardware: data-packet router boxes servicing online networks, possibly those of Facebook, Google, or Twitter. These routers were physically linked with yellow fiber-optic cables to other routers of major Internet Service Providers data networks.

“That’s unequivocally physical,” Blum realized.

The 60 Street Hudson building is also home to about six major communication networks that have fiber-optic cables traversing under the oceans. These fiber-optic cables connect America with Europe and many other parts of the world.

An undersea fiber-optic cable originates from inside a building called a landing station, and usually is located along a seaside neighborhood.

Most undersea fiber-optic cables crossing the oceans of the planet are about as wide as a garden hose.

A representative working for a communication’s company told Blum of a location, date, and time where he could see firsthand a fiber-optic cable brought onto shore from a specialized cable landing ship. The location was a beach south of Lisbon, Portugal.

Blum traveled to Lisbon, and arrived at the specified location around 9 a.m.

While standing on the beach, Blum could see the fiber-optic cable landing ship stationed approximately 1,000 feet out in the ocean.

The next thing he noticed was a man in a diving suit walking out of the water onto the shore holding a green nylon rope. This rope was the fiber-optic cable’s messenger line, used to pull the fiber-optic cable onto the beach.

Blum then heard and saw a bulldozer driving onto the beach.

This bulldozer was used to pull the messenger line; which was attached to the fiber-optic cable aboard the landing ship.

The bulldozer finished pulling the messenger line onto shore, and with it came many feet of fiber-optic cable.

The fiber-optic cable floated atop the water, attached to buoys which positioned the cable in the proper location.

The man in the diving suit went back out into the water with a knife to cut off the buoys and allow the fiber-optic cable to sink and rest on the ocean floor.

Blum took a photograph of the cable workers using a hacksaw to cut open the end of the fiber-optic cable pulled in from the ocean. It was being prepared for splicing to another fiber-optic cable being brought down from the coastal landing station.

“When you see these guys going at this cable with a hacksaw, you stop thinking about the internet as a cloud; it starts to seem like an incredibly physical thing,” said Blum.

This column writer was able to contact Blum for a brief interview.

Blum had just written a book about his two-year adventure and was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

B&B: Andrew, you said some people visually see the internet as the cloud-like image Opte has created. After two years of exploring and writing a book about the physical side of the internet, how do you see it now?

AB: I now have a pretty clear image of its physical realities, particularly the hubs closest to my home in Brooklyn. When a web page hangs, I often picture my cable company’s router, and curse the traffic on the yellow fiber-optic cable feeding it.

B&B: Many people feel the internet is connected worldwide via Earth-orbiting satellites; however, we know this not to be the case. What did you know about this before you started your investigation?

AB: No, even when I started, I knew it wasn’t connected by satellites. I’d read Neal Stephenson’s awesome piece in Wired from 1998, “Mother Earth Mother Board,” so I had a good starting understanding of the “tubes” under the ocean.

B&B: Vinton Cerf has talked about an “interplanetary internet.” What are your thoughts about Earth linking its network with other planetary bodies?

AB: I think that fits perfectly with the basic philosophical idea of the internet: a network of infinite networks.

B&B: What surprised you, or stays in your mind the most during your two-year exploration of the physical side of the internet?

AB: How small the internet turned out to be, both physically – the list of its most important buildings is surprisingly short; and culturally – the list of network engineers actively involved with interconnecting networks is also surprisingly short.

B&B: Andrew, is there another technology you would like to someday investigate and write about in the future?

AB: Good question. I’ve been thinking a lot about that now, but I don’t yet have a good answer.

I appreciate Blum for taking the time to talk with me about his book, “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.” It can be ordered from Barnes and Noble at https://bit.ly/2U5qK2e.

Update: Andrew Blum’s new book, “The Weather Machine” will be available June 25, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

This column was originally written Nov. 19, 2012, and was recently updated for today’s publication by the writer.

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