Several months ago, while I was procrastinating by aimlessly surfing the Web (a distracting habit that I share with my colleagues), my Internet connection disappeared. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence here in Nairobi – most days, my wireless connection will flicker on and off a handful of times, which is why I often rely on a back-up mobile modem (amusingly called a “dongle”) to get online. But on this particular day, something was off – my back-up modem wouldn’t connect, and the wireless didn’t flicker at all; the line of little, blinking green lights stayed dark. For hours. And then days.
As it turned out, the problem was caused by the severing of an undersea fiber-optic cable that connects East Africa with the rest of the virtual world. A ship docking off of the coast of Mombasa accidentally dragged its anchor across the East African Marine Systems (TEAMs) cable, disrupting service to Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. The outage lasted for more than a month and cost over six million dollars – not including the price of lost business revenue – by the time service was completely restored.
What was most striking about the service disruption – other than the (significant) frustration it caused – was how it altered my understanding of the very nature of the Internet. Having lived in the U.S. for most of my life, where Internet connectivity is widespread and, for the most part, reliable, I took for granted the most simple characteristic of the World Wide Web: that it is, ultimately, a physical object – and, as such, it can break.
In a new Fortune article entitled “Mapping the Internet,” Andrew Blum details what the tangible reality of the Internet actually is:
If the Internet is a global phenomenon, it’s because there are fiber-optic cables underneath the ocean. Light goes in on one shore and comes out the other, making these tubes the fundamental conduit of information throughout the global village. To make the light travel enormous distances, thousands of volts of electricity are sent through the cable’s copper sleeve to power repeaters, each the size and roughly the shape of a 600-pound bluefin tuna. One rests on the ocean floor every 50 miles or so. Inside its pressurized case is a miniature racetrack of the element erbium, which, when energized, gooses the particles of light along like a waterwheel.
Blum goes on to explain how the fiber-optic lines then connect to key hubs, or “Internet exchange points,” which are in turn linked to broadband cables that allow you and I to update our Facebook statuses and watch videos of puppies falling asleep. You know, the important daily tasks.
To illustrate this complicated system, Blum and graphic designer Nicolas Rapp teamed up with GeoTel Communications, a telecom data and infrastructure company that maps fiber-optic cables and geographic information systems around the globe. The resulting graphic is a stunning visualization of the complex infrastructure that makes our digital universe possible:
This is truly what the World Wide Web looks like – it’s not ethereal, existing in a cloud (or “the cloud”); it’s buried beneath our feet, connecting us to one another in an intricate web of cables that hum and buzz beneath the oceans.
As long as no rogue anchors interfere.