Sharks: One Of The Top Threats To Undersea Internet Cables? At Least, That’s What Google’s Saying!

By    |  August 19, 2014

Who would have though the future of the internet depended on sharks?

Well it does, according to an announcement by Google last week – or rather, on our ability to protect undersea fiber optic cables from the rather peculiar attraction that the underwater creatures seem to have toward them.

At a marketing event in Boston last week, Google Product Manager Dan Belcher mentioned that part of the reason the company is focused on sheathing all of its undersea fiber optic cables in a Kevlar-like protective coating is to protect them from the inevitably curious sharks that often bite into them (seen below):

The announcement – coinciding with Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” programming, which sheds light into the fascinating world of sharks – is nothing new, however. During the 1980s, when the first fiber optic cables were laid between Europe, the United States, and Japan, telecommunications officials quickly realized the love affair that sharks have with the cables. In 1987 the New York Times reported:

“In the Atlantic alone, shark bites have caused the failure of four segments of cable, which is the main artery for global voice and computer communications. And British telephone officials monitoring the installation of the fiber-optic network that will link the United States to Japan and Guam are also reporting troubles with gnawing sharks.

The attacks have caused some delays in laying cable, and a single bite on a deep-sea line, which is about the size of a garden hose, can cost $250,000 or more to fix. There is a benefit, however. In studying ways to limit damage from the attacks, the telephone companies are providing marine scientists with valuable new data on sharks and specimens of previously unknown species.”

While scientists and engineers don’t seem to have a conclusive understanding of why sharks are attracted to the cables, some have theorized that it has something to do with the strong electromagnetic fields emanating from them:

“Unlike short-haul terrestrial fiber cables or old copper cables where the fiber did not emit noticeable fields, undersea cables must carry high voltage power to the undersea repeaters, which result in both electric and magnetic fields around and along the cable … Some sharks mistaken the electric fields for distressed fish and attempt to feed on the cable.”

Sharks use multiple senses when they hunt, including “electroreception” – a special sense that only sharks and related fish use to detect electric fields from their prey. But according to a researcher from California State University : Long Beach who spoke with Wired about the issue, the sharks may also “simply be curious.”

Google recently announced that it was investing $300 million into an undersea fiber optic cable system called FASTER, which will offer much higher broadband internet speeds for countries in Asia. According to Forbes, the tech giant is also invested in two other undersea cable systems: UNITY and SJC (Southeast Asia Japan Cable). In total, Google currently owned over 100,000 miles of private fiber option routes around the world.

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