Economy

20,000 Cables Under The Sea The Internet Needs To Survive

Our connected lives don't happen as if by magic. Nearly 99% of intercontinental traffic, such as Internet and telephone, is made possible by giant underwater cables buried deep on the ocean floor.

Aboard a submarine cable ship
Aboard a submarine cable ship
Romain Gueugneau

CALAIS â€" The Ile de Sein ship leaves the port of Calais this December day with precious cargo. No special escort accompanies the ship as it sets out into the channel. The boats traveling this route have an important mission: to foster communication by connecting people to the Internet. They travel the world to link continents via thousands of kilometers of telecommunications cables installed on the ocean floor.

Most people are unaware of how dependent our information society is on this subsea infrastructure. Nearly 99% of intercontinental traffic, such as Internet and telephone, passes through these cables.

If the boom of smartphones and mobile Internet has created the illusion of a wireless world, where everything is magically accessible, the reality is quite different. It is still by cables that the vast majority of telecommunication data is exchanged, and when it comes to connecting one continent with another, it happens at the bottom of the sea. As revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, intelligence agencies also pay particular attention to the underwater network.

The Ile de Sein is part of the Alcatel-Lucent fleet and its specialized subsidiary ASN (Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks). The Franco-American group, which is about to be purchased by Nokia, is the world leader in underwater telecommunication cables â€" representing 40% of the market share. With a length of 140 meters, and a width of 23 meters, the ship is distinguished by the steel monster installed at the back: a huge industrial plow for digging trenches in the ocean floor. Inside, the tanks are specially designed to store up to 10,000 kilometers of telecommunications cables.

Weeks-long missions

The ship is on a mission for several weeks to install a part of the cable that will link France to Singapore. The system, called "Sea-Me-We 5" and controlled by a consortium of 15 telecom operators, spans 20,000 kilometers through the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, with branches to Italy, Turkey, the UAE and India. ASN is responsible for the installations between France and Sri Lanka. This is where the Ile de Sein begins its mission. Destination: Djibouti. In between, there are 5,300 kilometers of cable to install.

The work is painstaking. Installing a fiber optic cable is not like throwing an anchor. The topography of the sea bed has been studied very closely to insure installations are optimal, and the data have been sent to the cable manufacturer who will custom design the cable. If the underwater terrain is rugged, the cable needs to be thicker to avoid risk of damage. The installation becomes more problematic closer to the coast, where the sea bed is more irregular and more exposed to external attacks such as fish bites, fishing and anchors.

Depth also affects the installation speed. "In the deep, we can install up to 200 kilometers a day, while in shallower waters, it's more like 20 kilometers a day," says Philippe Kervella, the young Ile de Sein captain. At just 34, Kervella has worked on cable ships for more than 10 years.

The Ile de Sein ship in the port of Calais â€" Photo: Sergio77/GFDL

Before setting off for Sri Lanka, the Ile de Sein remained at Calais port for several days to load its precious cargo. The process takes a long time, as it is still done by hand. The cables are loaded in two huge tanks that are 7 meters high and 19 meters in diameter. Waiting for another load of cables to arrive, the workers have time to play a game of ping-pong or foosball. While the loading is done manually, the cables are shipped automatically through a 600-meter-long tunnel that connects the platform and the production site.

The majority of the world's communication cables are produced in Calais. The production site is the pride of the city, which these days is better known for the influx of migrants seeking to cross the channel into the UK. The "Jungle," a refugee camp that houses thousands of people, is located a few hundred meters away, and the surrounding roads are filled with patrol cars.

"Politicians visiting the area often make a detour to the cable factory," says Patricia Boulanger, ASN factory director. "It's a fine example of the industrial success for the region, where the economic situation remains complicated." With about 400 employees, the factory is one of the largest private employers in Calais, sustaining an entire ecosystem of subcontractors and suppliers.

Everything is recycled

The production site, situated at the edge of the city, was created in 1891 and has played an important part in the development of the industry over the decades. The first telegraph cables appeared in the 1850s between France and Britain, while the first underwater transatlantic telephone link wasn't installed until 1956. The first fiber optic cables were introduced in the mid-1980s.

Nexans is another telecommunication company with historical ties to ASN. The two companies used to be one â€" then owned by Cables de Lyon, CGE and finally Alcatel â€" but they separated in 2001.

Today, the ASN production site covers 16 hectares. The manufacturing process is divided into several steps. The first is the choice of the optical fiber that constitutes the raw material of the cable. "No fiber is identical. We test the optical performance of each one in order to meet customer needs," Boulanger says.

The coloring follows. One cable can contain a maximum 96 fibers, and to easier recognize the density, the cables are marked with color schemes. The next step is armoring the cable with a stainless steel tube to make it resistant to water pressure, and adding another copper layer to counter strong currents. The cables are divided into segments of 70 kilometers. In between the segments, electrical repeaters are installed to maintain the signal's intensity during its long journey. Finally, a last insulating layer is applied.

Before boarding, the material is tested and stored in huge tanks. Logistics are strategic: The cables should be stored in the order in which they will be deposited on the ocean floor. Part of the factory is dedicated to recycling old underwater cables. ASN has specialized in recycling for three years, and some older cables â€" as many as 40 years old â€" have been recovered and recycled. "Everything is recycled: plastic, steel, copper," Boulanger says. "The materials still work, the quality hasn't changed."

Submarine cables remain a niche market with three companies sharing the cake: ASN, TE SubCom (Tyco Electronics) and NEC. Orange is also present through its subsidiary Orange Marine, but only in installation and maintenance. The market activity remains limited, with a value estimated between 2 and 3 billion euros, marked by longer or shorter investment cycles.

"The current cycle is on the rise, as demand is fueled by the growth of mobile Internet, the use of video, the emergence of the Internet of Things, etc.," explains Leigh Frame, ASN's operations director. "We are witnessing an explosion of traffic, and this requires pipes to transport all the data."

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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