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Connecting the world

Connecting the world: Undersea cables

The fundamentals of global connectivity remain the same even as the playing field expands

In a quiet little cove on the South West coast of England is a small village of less than 450 people. Just one road leads into the village; the closest railway station is over 10 kilometers away. Boasting a sandy beach and a handful of apartments, the village is a popular (if little known) holiday destination for families in the UK.

Few vacationers probably suspect they are sitting at the birthplace of global connectivity. Indeed, for over a hundred years, this little village and the non-descript cement hut that still sits at the top of the beach were the epicenter of global communications. 

The village – if you hadn’t already guessed – is Porthcurno in Cornwall, England. History buffs will know that, in 1870, this village was the landing point for the first submarine communications cable stretching from the UK to India. And for the next 100 years, it served as the main connection point between England and her Empire. I recently had the opportunity to visit the museum that now sits in the old cabling tunnels near Porthcurno beach.

The museum’s Chair of the Board of Trustees, Gareth Parry, says that despite the remarkable tide of technological transformation in communications over the past few decades, the fundamentals in the endless drive toward greater international connectivity have changed little since this village found itself at the center of global connectivity. 

Michael David, head of Google’s global network infrastructure, agrees. “The shortest point between two places is still a straight line,” he says. “It’s a shorter distance from Los Angeles to Japan via cables than by going into space via satellite and then back down – and the amount of capacity available via subsea cable is magnitudes of order larger than over a satellite link.”

Back in Porthcurno, Gareth has identified five characteristics of early efforts to achieve global connectivity that remain highly relevant today:  

1. They knew how to fail (relatively) fast and learn from their mistakes. The first attempt at a transatlantic undersea cable in 1857 was an absolute failure; the cable broke numerous times and the project was abandoned for a year. The next attempt in 1858 again failed but another try later that year succeeded. Queen Victoria sent one of the first telegrams. Celebration ensued on both sides of the Atlantic. But about three weeks later, that cable also failed. It wasn’t until 1866 that a permanent connection was finally made between Newfoundland and Ireland.

The lesson here is that, even though each failed attempt cost their investors dearly and delayed progress by some time, the entrepreneurs and telegraph ‘startups’ of the time continued to learn from their mistakes and try again. They improved the cables; they adapted their installation approaches; they found new sources of funding. They persevered and succeeded.

An interesting side note – During an attempt to make the connection in 1865, the cable slipped off the ship in the middle of the Atlantic and was lost. The ship returned to port and the project was written off as a failure. It was the same ship that made the first permanent connection a year later and – after they landed their new cable – they went back out to see if they could ‘fish up’ the cable they had lost a year before. They found it (at a depth of 2.5 miles), spliced it to a new cable and dragged it, too, into harbor in Newfoundland. The investors had secured two connections for the price of one. 

2. It took entrepreneurs and visionaries to deliver the dream. The early pioneers of undersea cabling weren’t working from a blueprint. They were attempting to do something that nobody had ever even considered before. And it was these pioneers – people like American Cyrus Field and Englishman John Pender – that were instrumental in driving the growth of undersea cables. Field raised round after round of financing (and contributed significant amounts of his own money) that was needed for the entrepreneurs to keep trying. Pender commercialized the new technologies and was almost single-handedly responsible for linking the British Empire in those early days.

Then – as it is today – it took people with extraordinary vision and passion to overcome barriers that others considered impossible. This was not just about having the big ideas and technical expertise to follow through: these visionaries managed to rally governments, world leaders, financiers, ship magnates, businessmen and even entire city populations around their cause – time and again, even after multiple failures. 

3. Government intervened when necessary. While all of the initial undersea cabling endeavors were purely commercial ventures, the UK and US governments strongly encouraged the entrepreneurs’ efforts. For the initial attempt, the UK government gave Field GBP1,400 a year in funding and loaned him the ships he needed. The US government also provided a number of subsidies for the schemes. Likely the biggest intervention, however, was when the UK government forced Pender’s cable company to merge with Marconi’s wireless company to form the forerunner to the famous Cable & Wireless.

Particularly in the Victorian Era, government and world leaders recognized that connectivity was key to growth, security and peace. Yet they also recognized that the best way to drive innovation and commercialization of a new technology was by allowing the markets to operate naturally. Only once it seemed that competition between technologies could result in significant wasted investment did they step in to take a more interventionist role by regulating consolidation. 

4. Talent and capability gaps were immediate challenges. Building an entirely new communication channel from scratch isn’t easy. It requires a massive ecosystem of researchers, suppliers, partners and employees to make the venture a success. Those early pioneers worked closely with the innovation leaders of their time – men like Morse and Kelvin – to drive rapid innovation in the new cabling technologies. The vast majority of the world’s first cable operators were trained at the school and cable office there in tiny little Porthcurno. 

The early pioneers recognized that they needed a wider ecosystem of partners and suppliers to deliver on their vision at pace. So they developed partnerships, invested in new suppliers and worked with academics to create the ecosystem and talent pool they required. Kelvin (the inventor of the temperature scale, amongst other things) was particularlygood at licensing out his patents to reinvest into new research.

5. Expect the unexpected and seize the opportunities. Much like that early expedition that fished up the lost cable, the early entrepreneurs and companies needed to be able to quickly adapt to changing market forces. And their legacy companies needed to do the same. When coaxial cable was introduced, companies like Cable and Wireless invested and adapted. When fiber optics were commercialized, it was these telecom companies – many with roots that traced back to Porthcurno – that made the investments and brought us into the digital age.

The point is that, while disruption is inevitable, those companies that are able to predict and adapt to changes in the marketplace are ultimately able to evolve, grow and transform with the market and demand.  

Michael David at Google concurs with Gareth’s viewpoint. “Overall, the fundamentals of global connectivity do remain largely similar, from having a clear vision and bringing it to life with the right combination of talent, collaborative partnerships and modern technology, to anticipating disruptions, adapting to change and seizing on emerging opportunities through innovation.”   

At the same time, he cautions, the playing field has exploded in recent years, making the need for innovative connectivity solutions amid dramatic change endless and increasing. 

“We have billions of end users residing everywhere today, on every device and on every platform.  They’re in every country, they’re speaking every language and come from every culture. We need to be able to supply this unprecedented marketplace with the data and capabilities that everyone is looking for and expects – regardless of where they are,” he says. “So today’s challenges are unprecedented. And significant efforts are also underway to get the next billion users online. And when they arrive, they’re all going to arrive on a mobile device. Large parts of the world are just going to skip the landline or desktop PC or even laptop connections. They’re just going to go right to some type of handset and access information and share it that way.”

Google has spent US$30 billion improving global infrastructure over three years, he adds, from data centers to subsea cables, including the recent announcement on three new subsea cables in the works: Curie, a private cable connecting Chile to Los Angeles - the first subsea cable to land in Chile in almost 20 years; Havfrue, a consortium cable connecting the US to Denmark and Ireland that’s expected to come online by the end of 2019; and the Hong Kong-Guam cable system, a consortium cable interconnecting major subsea communication hubs in Asia.   

“Things are moving more rapidly than ever today and we’re excited about the progress being made,” says Michael David. “The connectivity mission has not changed over time, even as technology races forward. We remain committed to ensuring that every Google end user has access to the best connections possible in an increasingly connected world.”  

“The telegraph didn’t die. It just went digital”, says Gareth. “Morse code was the precursor to binary; cable wire was the precursor to fiber; telegraph machines were simply a way to send and receive emails in the Victorian era. Much has changed in 150 years but the fundamentals of global connectivity essentially remain the same.”

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