Mapping subsea cables

22 November 2011 | Tim Phillips


A Wiki under the sea for the carrier business

You know the problem: you want to lease a cable from Piti in Guam to Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, and you don’t know who to ask. I can now tell you that since March 2010, the 3,500km HANTRU1 cable system, jointly owned by Hannon Armstrong, the Federated States of Micronesia Telecommunications Company and Marshall Islands Telecommunications Authority, is the one you want.

And, of course, if you wanted to lease capacity all the way back to Incheon, you’d be encouraged that in 2013, the forthcoming Guam Okinawa Kyushu Incheon cable will also be landing on Guam. In Tumon Bay, since you ask.

Thanks to TeleGeography’s new interactive submarine cable map (www.submarinecablemap.com), dinner party conversation will never be the same again. There is, however, a serious point to all this. There is no United Nations Bureau of Undersea Networking (UNBUN), so TeleGeography is filling the gap.

“It’s effectively a real-time map of what’s out there, where the cables are landed. We carry data on things like latency, so it’s a useful planning tool. Carriers who want to purchase diverse paths to a destination can see what there is available and where it goes,” says Alan Mauldin, research director at TeleGeography.

Note: there isn’t another route to Kwajalein, so please be vigilant when dropping anchor off Eastern Guam.

Mauldin jokes that his job title should be “cartographer”, thanks to a rash of interest from news outlets everywhere whose journalists and readers have been shocked to discover that there are actually cables under the sea. If you cut one, all the data leaks out and covers the ocean floor in zeros and ones.

TeleGeography has been producing sophisticated paper maps for many years, but Google Maps technology has helped Markus Krisetya, Nick Browning and Larry Lairson – the team behind the map – to create something that can be easily panned and zoomed. Browsers can click on the cables to reveal the data that underpins the map in a way that a wallchart can never do.

It also has the advantage that the map isn’t just a product of TeleGeography’s database. Additions are crowdsourced, a Wiki under the sea for the carrier business: the company encourages everyone who knows of unplotted cables or errors to get in touch (cablemap@telegeography.com) to make sure the information is accurate and complete.

Only weeks after launch, users have pushed TeleGeography to enhance the map in two ways. The first is the addition of useful cables that were never intended to be included. Originally the map showed only international cables of 5Gbps and over, but requests for important domestic cables have prompted more of them to go in; and some older cables which everyone thought were sub-5Gbps but have had their capacity boosted by advances in technology have been introduced too.

This highlights that, even though TeleGeography has got as close as anyone to a definitive map, no one knows exactly what’s out there. “We’re not trying to show every bend in the cable, but our map is so you can understand what’s in service,” Mauldin says, “The difficult thing is finding which ones in our database have already been turned off. There’s a big fanfare when cables are switched on, but not when it goes out of service.”

Not everyone is as keen. When the UK Daily Mail ran a feature on the “Incredible new map of the undersea cables that keep 99% of the world clicking”, a few of its appalled readers reacted in horror. “Has anyone thought to ask fish and dolphins how these cables are affecting their life?” wrote “Matt” from York. “I for one will NOT be using these cables,” he added angrily – on the Daily Mail’s webpage.

Tim Phillips can be contacted at: tim@timphillips.co.uk