A submarine communications cable is a cable laid beneath the sea to carry telecommunications between countries.
The first submarine communications cables carried telegraphy traffic. Subsequent generations of cables carried first telephony traffic, then data communications traffic. All modern cables use fibre optic technology to carry digital payloads, which are then used to carry telephone traffic as well as Internet and private data traffic. They are typically 69 mm in diameter and weigh around 10 kg per meter, although thinner and lighter cables are used for deep water sections.
Another insulating gum which could be melted by heat and readily applied to wire made its appearance in 1842. Gutta-percha, the adhesive juice of the Palaquium gutta tree, was introduced to Europe by William Montgomerie, a Scottish surgeon in the service of the British East India Company. Twenty years earlier he had seen whips made of it in Singapore, and he believed that it would be useful in the fabrication of surgical apparatus. Michael Faraday and Wheatstone soon discovered the merits of gutta-percha as an insulator, and in 1845 the latter suggested that it should be employed to cover the wire which was proposed to be laid from Dover to Calais. It was tried on a wire laid across the Rhine between Deutz and Cologne. In 1849 C.V. Walker, electrician to the South Eastern Railway, submerged a wire coated with it, or, as it is technically called, a gutta-percha core, along the coast off Dover.
The North Pacific Cable system was the first laser regenerative (repeatered) system to completely cross the Pacific from the US mainland to Japan. The US portion of NPC was manufactured in Portland Oregon from 1989-1991 at STC Submarine Systems, and later Alcatel Submarine Networks (the plant was shutdown in 2001). The system was laid by Cable & Wireless Marine on the CS Cable Venture in 1991.
As early as 1823, Francis Ronalds had observed that electric signals were retarded in passing through an insulated wire or core laid underground, and the same effect was noticeable on cores immersed in water, and particularly on the lengthy cable between England and The Hague. Michael Faraday showed that the effect was caused by capacitance between the wire and the earth (or water) surrounding it. Faraday had noted that when a wire is charged from a battery (for example when pressing a telegraph key), the electric charge in the wire induces an opposite charge in the water as it travels along. As the two charges attract each other, the exciting charge is retarded. The core acts as a capacitor distributed along the length of the cable which, coupled with the resistance and inductance of the cable limits the speed at which a signal travels through the conductor of the cable.
Early cable designs failed to analyze these effects correctly. Famously, E.O.W. Whitehouse had dismissed the problems and insisted that a transatlantic cable was feasible. When he subsequently became electrician of the Atlantic Telegraph Company he became involved in a public dispute with William Thomson. Whitehouse believed that, with enough voltage, any cable could be driven. Because of the excessive voltages recommended by Whitehouse, Cyrus West Field's first transatlantic cable never worked reliably, and eventually short circuited to the ocean when Whitehouse increased the voltage beyond the cable design limit.
Thomson designed a complex electric-field generator that minimized current by resonating the cable, and a sensitive light-beam mirror galvanometer for detecting the faint telegraph signals. Thomson became wealthy on the royalties of these, and several related inventions. Thomson was elevated to Lord Kelvin for his contributions in this area, chiefly an accurate mathematical model of the cable, which permitted design of the equipment for accurate telegraphy. The effects of atmospheric electricity and the geomagnetic field on submarine cables also motivated many of the early polar expeditions.
Thomson had produced a mathematical analysis of propagation of electrical signals into telegraph cables based on their capacitance and resistance, but since long submarine cables operated at slow rates, he did not include the effects of inductance. By the 1890s, Oliver Heaviside had produced the modern general form of the telegrapher's equations which included the effects of inductance and which were essential to extending the theory of transmission lines to higher frequencies required for high-speed data and voice.
While laying a transatlantic telephone cable was seriously considered from the 1920s, a number of technological advances were required for cost-efficient telecommunications that did not arrive until the 1940s. A first attempt to lay a pupinized telephone cable failed in the early 1930s due to the Great Depression.
In 1942, Siemens Brothers of Charlton, London in conjunction with the United Kingdom National Physical Laboratory, adapted submarine communications cable technology to create the world's first submarine oil pipeline in Operation Pluto during World War II.
TAT-1 (Transatlantic No. 1) was the first transatlantic telephone cable system. Between 1955 and 1956, cable was laid between Gallanach Bay, near Oban, Scotland and Clarenville, Newfoundland and Labrador. It was inaugurated on September 25, 1956, initially carrying 36 telephone channels.
In the 1960s, transoceanic cables were coaxial cables that transmitted frequency-multiplexed voiceband signals. A high voltage direct current on the inner conductor powered the repeaters. The first-generation repeaters are among the most reliable vacuum tube amplifiers ever designed. Later ones were transistorized. Many of these cables are still usable, but abandoned because their capacity is too small to be commercially viable. Some have been used as scientific instruments to measure earthquake waves and other geomagnetic events.
Modern optical fiber repeaters use a solid-state optical amplifier, usually an Erbium-doped fiber amplifier. Each repeater contains separate equipment for each fibre. These comprise signal reforming, error measurement and controls. A solid-state laser dispatches the signal into the next length of fiber. The solid-state laser excites a short length of doped fiber that itself acts as a laser amplifier. As the light passes through the fibre, it is amplified. This system also permits wavelength-division multiplexing, which dramatically increases the capacity of the fiber.
Repeaters are powered by a constant direct current passed down the conductor near the centre of the cable, so all repeaters in a cable are in series. Power feed equipment is installed at the terminal stations. Typically both ends share the current generation with one end providing a positive voltage and the other a negative voltage. A virtual earth point exists roughly half way along the cable under normal operation. The amplifiers or repeaters derive their power from the potential difference drop across them.
The optic fiber used in undersea cables is chosen for its exceptional clarity, permitting runs of more than 100 kilometers between repeaters to minimize the number of amplifiers and the distortion they cause.
Originally, submarine cables were simple point-to-point connections. With the development of submarine branching units (SBUs), more than one destination could be served by a single cable system. Modern cable systems now usually have their fibres arranged in a self-healing ring to increase their redundancy, with the submarine sections following different paths on the ocean floor. One driver for this development was that the capacity of cable systems had become so large that it was not possible to completely back-up a cable system with satellite capacity, so it became necessary to provide sufficient terrestrial back-up capability. Not all telecommunications organizations wish to take advantage of this capability, so modern cable systems may have dual landing points in some countries (where back-up capability is required) and only single landing points in other countries where back-up capability is either not required, the capacity to the country is small enough to be backed up by other means, or having back-up is regarded as too expensive.
A further redundant-path development over and above the self-healing rings approach is the "Mesh Network" whereby fast switching equipment is used to transfer services between network paths with little to no effect on higher-level protocols if a path becomes inoperable. As more paths become available to use between two points, the less likely it is that one or two simultaneous failures will prevent end-to-end service.
To effect repairs on deep cables, the damaged portion is brought to the surface using a grapple. Deep cables must be cut at the seabed and each end separately brought to the surface, whereupon a new section is spliced in. The repaired cable is longer than the original, so the excess is deliberately laid in a 'U' shape on the sea-bed. A submersible can be used to repair cables that are near the surface.
A number of ports near important cable routes became homes to specialised cable repair ships. Halifax, Nova Scotia was home to a half dozen such vessels for most of the 20th century including long-lived vessels such as the CS Cyrus West Field, CS Minia and CS Mackay-Bennett. The latter two were contracted to recover victims from the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The crews of these vessels developed many new techniques to repair and improve cable laying, such as the "plough", a device to bury cables.
In July 2005, a portion of the SEA-ME-WE 3 submarine cable located 35 kilometers (21 miles) south of Karachi that provided Pakistan's major outer communications became defective, disrupting almost all of Pakistan's communications with the rest of the world, and affecting approximately 10 million Internet users.
In March, 2007, pirates stole an 11-kilometre section of the T-V-H submarine cable that connected Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong, affecting Vietnam's Internet users with far slower speeds. The thieves attempted to sell the 100 tons of illicit cargo as scrap.
The 2008 submarine cable disruption was a series of cable outages, two of the three Suez Canal cables, two disruptions in the Persian Gulf, and one in Malaysia. It caused massive communications disruptions to India and the Middle East.