V3.co.uk got the chance to test its sea legs today on a visit to the Ile de Batz, one of Alcatel Lucent's major cable laying ships, which was anchored offshore in the Thames near Greenwich.
On board, the captain of the vessel, Piere Dautry, explained that up to 11,000km of fibre can be stored on the ship and some 200km can be laid per-day over a 24 hour period when conditions are right.
The series of pictures below provide a fascinating insight into this little detailed but vital element of the internet's infrastructure.
The Ile de Batz: Capable of laying cable for up to 40 days in a row, the ship travels the world laying fibre that forms the basis of connections between major nations and continents.
Up to 11,000km of cable of 17mm width can be stored in two huge chambers in the ship's decks, equating to up to 3,000 tonnes. On average, an installation can cost up to $500m and so is paid for by consortiums of telecoms operators.
The tiny fibres can carry up to 40Gbit/s of data and are bought from a specialist fibre manufacturer. They are tested thoroughly before being loaded on to the ships in Calais and should last for up to 25 years.
In order to protect the fibre, specialist casing is built around it. For shallower waters, up to 1,000m, heavy duty housing is needed to protect it from fishing activities, anchors, coral reefs, and even fish themselves. At deeper depths of up to 8,000m, fishing is not such a problem so less heavy-duty protection is required.
To protect the cable repeaters from being damaged they are housed in highly secure units that can be created on the boat while at sea. Below shows a breakdown of the housing for the cables.
Despite this heavy-duty protection, cuts in the cables are not uncommon and can result in a loss of service for many hours, or even days, for users across large swathes of the globe. As such, a fleet of repair ships are on constant standby for just such events.
A dedicated bank of monitors on the bridge helps crew members monitor the exact position the cable is being laid in, and calculates the effect of winds, currents and the boat's movement to help regulate the power the boat needs to keep the cable laying steady as the boat rocks around.
Currently, Alcatel is involved in two projects to connect African nations to new fibres, with each set to run from Portugal to South Africa, with several branch connections heading inland on the way to bring other nations online with broadband for the first time ever.
Philippe Dumont, head of submarine activity at Alcatel-Lucent, said the push from African network operators underlined the growing demand for capacity in the continent, and said he expected the market to reach its required levels by 2012, before new markets would open up.
"The entire Asia region could be a big growth area in the coming years. New connections are required all the time to ensure enough capacity is available and to ensure there is enough resilience to keep enterprises and consumers connected at all times," he said.
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