- The Undersea Network by Nicole Starosielski
The world economy and global relations rely on a network of telecommunications cables under the oceans. Except when they are laid or interrupted, these cables operate unseen and largely unappreciated. But unlike such local public utilities as water mains and sewage systems, the cable network is global. Thus any interruption has ripple effects throughout whole regions or continents.
The story of the first successful telegraph cable across the Atlantic in 1866 is in every American history textbook. For a century thereafter, an oligopoly of large (mostly British) corporations operated a global network of copper cables able to transmit only telegrams. Though cables required very costly investments, they lasted for decades; hence the industry was very conservative. [End Page 130]
Since then, global communications have undergone two technological revolutions. The first was the introduction in the 1950s of coaxial cables that could carry voice as well as data, a phenomenon that coincided with the Cold War. Unlike purely national telegraph cables, they were constructed by consortia of companies under the supervision of the United States and its allies. Although extremely costly, they provided greater security than satellites, another revolutionary technology of the time.
Then in the late 1980s came fiber-optic cables of incredible speed and bandwidth. Thus in 1988, coaxial cables in New Zealand could send and receive up to 1,800 simultaneous telephone calls; by 2003, fiber-optic cables had enough bandwidth to transmit 1.8 billion simultaneous calls to and from New Zealand. As the shift from coaxial to fiber-optic cables coincided with a wave of deregulation and privatization, scores of start-up companies entered the field, each promising to provide higher speeds and more bandwidth than its rivals. As a result of this frenetic competition and vastly excessive bandwidth, most of these companies eventually went bankrupt. But the cables they laid are still there under new owners and provide the quick, easy, and cheap telephone and Internet service we have all come to expect. Today, over 90 percent of intercontinental communications go by cables, eclipsing the role of satellites.
The recent history of submarine cables is fascinating, and Nicole Starosielski deserves praise for tackling such an important and fast-changing subject. In The Undersea Network, she sets out to reveal the inner working of modern submarine cables between North America, Australia, New Zealand, and many Pacific islands. In doing so, she demonstrates that telecommunication does not take place in an ethereal “cloud,” but in a very material system that is highly sensitive to the natural, social, political, and cultural environments through which it passes.
On the ocean floor, cables are relatively secure. But, as the author emphasizes, they are vulnerable when they approach a coast and come on shore. Close to shore, cables are often broken by ships’ anchors and trawlers’ nets. Cable stations, where they are connected to landlines, tend to be inconspicuous buildings filled with computers and switches that require little maintenance. Unlike stations, cable landings are often visible, hence vulnerable to what the author calls “turbulent ecologies.” The confrontations she describes range from the protests of environmentalists and the red tape of multiple bureaucracies in California to demonstrations by local activists, campers, and drifters in Hawaii. In response, cable companies have had to develop “strategies of insulation [End Page 131] and interconnection,” such as requesting government protection or hiding landings in nature preserves and other less visible places.
Although the main purpose of submarine cables is to connect continents across the vast Pacific, it is necessary to stop at islands, to which the author devotes a chapter. Some, like the Hawaiian archipelago, have enough traffic to justify cables of their own. Others are nodes on longer lines or points of interconnection. Guam is such a node between North America, Australasia, and East Asia; as a major military outpost, its cables are under U.S. government protection. Fiji once served as a hub for radio communications with numerous islands in the South Pacific; however, political upheavals since 1987 have frightened off the...