When you think about what the internet really is, what comes to mind? It is something we use every day and most of us don’t give it a second thought.
But there has been a lot of excitement surrounding the game-changing project that will bring a submarine cable directly onto the shores of the Sunshine Coast, boosting our connectivity and removing our reliance on the closest one located in Sydney.
The project includes a 550-kilometre undersea fibre-optic cable, which will connect the Coast to the 9600-kilometre Japan-Guam-Australia South (JGA-S) submarine cable. Ultimately, we will have a faster connection to more than 1.5 billion people.
Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast CEO Mark Paddenburg says there are more than 440 submarine cables in service, stretching over 1.2 million kilometres around the world and “soon the Sunshine Coast will be in this exclusive cable club”.
So, what is a submarine cable?
If you’re like me, you probably think such a cable would have to be a thickness of a tree trunk to be able to withstand the underwater pressure and handle the amount of data we transfer every millisecond as a nation.
But the cables used are not only made of 100 per cent pure glass, but they are the width of a strand of hair. Your photos, videos, messages and documents are sent around the world on these tiny strands through pulses of light. The cables are colour-coded and always organised into pairs, because they are bi-directional. Each submarine cable could contain anywhere from a couple of pairs to dozens depending on the requirements. The rest of the cable – 99 per cent of it – is made up of protection and insulation.
“It’s truly amazing technology built into thin glass fibres that span the globe and provide us with lighting-fast connectivity, when it works,” Mr Paddenburg says.
Why do we need them?
While you might think we have enough mobile phone towers and satellites in space to be able to transmit data around the world, Mr Paddenburg says undersea cables carry 96 to 99 per cent of all global communications. When you consider that the world is 70 per cent water, this makes sense.
In the book The Undersea Network, American researcher Nicole Starosielski points out that cable technology allows for data exchange up to eight times faster than what can be achieved via satellite.
Mayor Mark Jamieson, who was instrumental in bringing the project to fruition, says most of Queensland’s data and communications currently travel to Sydney via land, before heading to its international destination through submarine cables.
“People don’t realise that every time you make an international phone call or transfer data overseas, every time you search Google, every time you like something on Facebook, it doesn’t go through a satellite,” he says.
“To have all Australian east-coast international cables landing in Sydney is not only more expensive, it’s a huge business and national security risk if those cables are damaged at the same time.”
Mayor Jamieson says the international submarine cable will connect to a new cable landing station near the Maroochydore city centre. It will increase data transmission speed and should, over time, lead to a reduction in international communication costs for business and consumers.
How is the cable installed?
In A Journey to the Bottom of the Internet, YouTube presenters and Google employees Natalie Hammel and Lorraine Yurshansky, known as Nat and Lo, venture on board a ship preparing to deploy to highlight exactly how the cable is prepared to be laid.
The cable is made and stored in tanks in a huge warehouse and fed down a “cable highway” and dropped into the ship’s hull, where it is coiled by hand into gigantic reels.
“It takes about a month for the cable to be loaded up, with workers working around the clock in 12-hour shifts,” Ms Hammel explains.
The ship then sails to where the installation will begin and gets as close to the shore as possible, floating out the length needed before it is buried into the sand to protect it from beachgoers.
It then follows a pre-determined meticulously plotted course, which is chosen to avoid undersea mountain ranges and follows the flattest possible route. While it is sailing, a remote-operated plough is dragged behind the ship to dig down and bury the cable under the sea bed.
What does the new submarine cable mean for residents?
There will be improvement in speed, quality and connectivity.
“Because we are all consuming more data at work and in the home, even with the NBN rollout our region will struggle to keep up with demand,” Mr Paddenburg says. “The extra cable capacity will help future proof our region by providing faster, more reliable and affordable broadband connectivity.
“Well-located cables will be as important as the railways, highways and shipping lanes have been to society,” Mr Paddenburg says.
What does it mean for business?
Russ Matulich, CEO of RTI – the company partnering with council to deliver the project – says the cable will place the region on the business map of the world.
“Businesses need the fastest communications path between two locations. They need the ability to store data and this new cable, and the landing station at Maroochydore, will enable this to happen.
“This new path will deliver traffic into and out of Australia faster than the Sydney route because it is geographically closer to mainland China and Hong Kong, where there are over 1.1 billion people; to Japan where there are several hundred million people; and to the west coast of the United States where big companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are located.
“Compared to other destinations, the Sunshine Coast project is one of the few cables that will be able to reach into those big cities over one network.”
While the region hasn’t yet attracted the likes of a Google regional headquarters, the cable will boost the competitiveness for businesses of all sizes and enhance the region’s capabilities for co-working.
“I have no doubt the new cable will be a game changer for digital tech startups and high-growth local companies… right through to established multinational businesses like Youi Insurance and McCormick’s [formerly Gourmet Garden],” Mr Paddenburg says.
“There will also be benefits for our new hospital as we embrace new services like telemedicine over the next decade.
“The University of the Sunshine Coast and its research institutes will also be a beneficiary of the greater bandwidth as we deliver education via a multi-campus network and also deliver courses globally.”
Expected to deliver up to 864 new jobs and stimulate $927 million in new investment in Queensland.
The submarine cable will be supplied and installed by Alcatel Submarine Network and is expected to be completed by the first half of 2020.
The branch connection from the Sunshine Coast to JGA-S will be about 550 kilometres.
The total combined investment by the council and the State Government is $35 million.
Cisco Systems’ Visual Networking Index predicts the 2022 internet traffic will equal the first 32 years of the internet’s history.
The number of internet users is projected to grow from 3.4 billion in 2017 to 4.8 billion in 2022.