Cable Innocence

In 2020 the submarine cables take up a length of approximately 1.2 million kilometers [1] which is an impressive number, too large to comprehend and thus as unreal as the ceaseless wireless data connection itself. But the cables are physical, of course, and require not only manufacturing, but also installation and maintenance. And presumably – lots of money for lots of power in return. But for a commercial, artificial and physical entity spanning across oceans, cables seem to have gained more sympathy (or more sympathetic vocabulary) than I would have expected.

There is a history of submarine cables starting with telegraphy traffic in the 1850s, but these days submarine telecommunication cables are fiber optic cables that operate by shooting pulses of light through transparent fibers usually made of glass or plastics; cables laid under the seabed are wrapped in protective layers made of steel, copper, and polyethylene, and are equipped with repeaters that are additionally powered by a power cable [2]. When possible, these cables are buried under the seabed in the sand, but when impossible (or sometimes not legally required) they are laid on the seabed and covered up with concrete mattresses, rocks or cast-iron shells for protective reasons [2].

Invasive and alien as they are in the submarine environment, cables and cable laying seemingly does not have an alarming impact on the environment and underwater fauna. Related environmental impacts include underwater noise, heat dissipation, electromagnetic fields, contamination, and disturbance [2], but they are largely seen as minor, temporal, and transient. And strange as it seems, according to biologist Brian Bett, old and unused cables could even be abandoned in the ocean, as “there could be a carbon footprint assessment of the diesel fuel used to recover them”, and very often that is the case and cables, as well as repeaters, are left in the ground [3]. But this somehow seems to oversee the fact that fiber, metal, and plastics are still waste buried deep into the oceans, disrupting nature.

There is a reported incident of a humpback whale entangled in a data cable near the coast of Norway, which is rescued by the coastal guard in two days time after accidental spotting by a nature photographer [4], but for as much as we can see (and given the depth of the ocean – it’s not much) modern cables have also spared the large marine mammals. Rest aside the environmental impact of roaring data centers and power usage of ever-increasing multimedia content and data consumption, cables are starting to seem truly innocent.

And interestingly, as such, they are also depicted in the public discourse – vulnerable and in a need of defense. Cables as such are subject to various faults – accidental human activity and occasional earthquakes and underwater slides, but at this point, cables are laid across different routes and customers are rarely aware of disruptions, with main losses being for the telco industry [5]. In 1958 The International Cable Protection Committee was founded [6]; CNN depicts cables as being vulnerable, BBC asks Could Russian submarines cut off the Internet?, and various UK government officials seek attention for the insecure [7] cables and their defense [8]. The overall depiction in media also seems to follow the line of magnificent, but vulnerable network, without posing questions of ownership and thus, power relations.

Without a deep knowledge of the secretive cable industry and large tech companies, this discourse can seem alarming, inviting the public to hope for the protection of the cables, as if the cables were a part of our private selves. Fearing the Russians, fearing a communications cutout, fearing a disruption of our Internet-dependent private realities, fearing a moment in a dystopian future when all the cables crash and we are left out of reach. For the most part, the world has grown dependent on submarine data cables and companies planting, maintaining, and owning those cables, so a general public vouching for the cables (thus, vouching for the companies, no questions asked) seems like a logical if not fearful attitude, for the power is too enormous to challenge. And even one step further, if I may – public fear in itself is quite a resource.



[1] Submarine Cable 101. URL:

[2] Institute of Applied Ecology. Impacts of submarine cables on the marine environment – A literature review. URL:

[3] Boztas, S. Buried at sea: the companies cashing in on abandoned cables, 14.12.2016. URL:

[4] Coghlan, A. Hacker, the humpback whale who got tangled in an internet cable, 16.11.2016. URL:

[5] Griffiths, J. The global internet is powered by vast undersea cables. But they’re vulnerable. 26.07.2019. URL:

[6] About the ICPC. URL:

[7] Sunak, R. Undersea Cables: Indispensable, insecure. 1.12.2017. URL:

[8] Barker, P. The Challenge of Defending Subsea Cables. 20.3.2018. URL: