Dear Security Cat,
My daughter asked me how it’s possible that her computer here in Nebraska can connect to someone in Australia. I tried to explain how the internet is really just a bunch of different computers connecting to each other, but I didn’t have an easy answer that directly addresses her question. Can you help me out? (Or should I say, help MEOWT?)
Curious in Nebraska
First and foremost, 10 points for the cat pun! And you’re absolutely right. The internet is really just a bunch of computers connecting together. But how that connection makes its way from your location in Nebraska to Australia is an interesting question. The distance between those two locations aside (nearly 9,000 miles/14,100 kilometers), there is some serious terrain to manage (mountains and oceans and such).
The answer takes us all the way back to 1858 when the first transatlantic telegraph cable was finally laid, connecting the United States to England. It took four years to complete and lasted for only three weeks. But it did transmit the first official message across the Atlantic Ocean—a telegram from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan:
“The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest. The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the two places whose friendship is founded upon their common interests and reciprocal esteem. The Queen has much pleasure in thus directly communicating with the President, and in renewing to him her best wishes for the prosperity of the United States.”
It was 99 words in total and took 17 hours and 40 minutes to transmit, which was a significant improvement on the 10 days that communication took between the two continents via ships.
Fast forward 135 years to the mid-90s and we find FLAG (Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe)—a 28,000-kilometer (17,393 miles) optical fiber cable that connects the United Kingdom, Japan, and many places in between. It was, at the time, the longest in the world—a record bested in the year 2000 by SEA-ME-WE 3 (South-East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 3), which starts in Norden, Germany and travels 39,000 kilometers (24,000 miles) to Okinawa, Japan with 39 total landing points.
And that is how a computer in Nebraska connects to a computer in Australia. Not by satellites or a system of wireless magic. But by a network of cables that together cover hundreds of thousands of miles worldwide, large sections of which rest on the ocean floor. In fact, 99 percent of international data is transmitted by submarine wires.
To learn more, check out this awesome interactive submarine cable map!
And here are some fun facts provided by telegeography.com:
- As of 2017, there are approximately 428 submarine cables around the world.
- The majority of cables are as wide as a standard garden hose.
- There are approximately 1.1 million kilometers (684,000 miles) of submarine cables of various lengths.
- Each cable is designed to have a shelf-life of about 25 years.
- The majority of cable failures can be attributed to human activity such as fishing and ships dropping anchor.
Those wires are how your cat pictures on your Instagram get viewed by people across the globe. Those wires are how you can video-call your family while vacating internationally. And those wires are how a Nigerian Prince is able to reach your inbox with a promise of large sums of money in return for an up-front payment.
Now that we’ve answered the question, let’s take a minute to appreciate how much work has been dedicated towards communication, and respect that work by fighting back against the crime that travels along those same wires! Use strong passwords, think before you click, and keep those devices up to date.
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