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Powering people’s connected lives

June 29, 2016

David Eden   

Future technologist and product innovation

While superfast Internet connectivity is not yet ubiquitous in all parts of the world, for many people and businesses, it has become a utility – much like electricity. But, because of the way in which the Internet has permeated all aspects of our lives, we all arguably sometimes take it for granted.

What many might not realise is that there is a huge, sophisticated fibre infrastructure that underpins connectivity globally – and at Tata Communications, we look after the infrastructure that keeps the Internet going. The backbone on which it is all delivered is based on a network of subsea cables, laid on the seabed, transporting data packets at breakneck speeds across international waters.

To illustrate, the TGN-Atlantic (TGN-A) is Tata Communications’ subsea cable system connecting the UK and the US, powering cloud services, collaboration and communications for hundreds of millions of people. Part of the Tata Global Network (TGN), it transmits data across 6,800 kilometres of ocean at a rate of around 8 terabits per second (TB/s). If we convert bits into bytes, a more familiar unit of storage, that equals 1 terabyte per second. Put in another way, if the average mobile data plan is 500MB per month, that amounts to 2,097 monthly mobile data plans – or 512 full, free Dropbox accounts – being sent across the Atlantic every second.

It’s not only about equipping a cable with enough bandwidth, however. To launch that amount of data at such high speed requires a vast amount of electricity too. So, given the length of the TGN-A – which equates to 136,000 Olympic-length swimming pools – the cable needs to be resupplied with power by amplifiers at 60 kilometre intervals throughout its journey across the bottom of the ocean.  To do this, the 148 amplifiers are supplied with power by our landing stations at each end in the UK and US.

It probably comes as no surprise then building a new cable system requires an enormous amount of work, including physically laying the cable on the seabed. It might sound simple, but in the case of the TGN-A for example, it involved overcoming obstacles such as the Puerto Rico trench, the Atlantic Ocean’s deepest point. At just 200m shy of the size of Mount Everest, the trench lies at 8,648m below sea level. Building a new cable system is therefore a process that takes months, even years, depending on factors such as the depth and breadth of the sea it will cover, as well as more unpredictable factors such as weather conditions. When building a new subsea cable system for the TGN, we work closely with our partners specialising in the engineering of subsea cable systems who build, ship and lay the cable, amplifiers and other hardware.

Once completed, if anything was to go wrong and the cable had to be accessed by engineers, it would be a huge undertaking. That is why the subsea infrastructure is designed to require zero maintenance for a period of around 25 years.

To ensure that our customers and partners never lose the superfast connectivity which – much like electricity – powers their operations worldwide, our field operations teams in our landing stations monitor the network 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

To learn more about how the Internet works and the role that Tata Communications plays at the heart of it, read Bob Dormon’s deep dive article from ARS Technica.