30,000 Feet Below: Connecting Continents from the Ocean Floor

June 01, 2017
By Eric Wagner

Gale force winds, pouring down rain, 13-foot swells on a rocking ship – most people only experience Mother Nature like this in the movies. But for me, it’s just another day at the office.

I’m part of a specialized team of undersea cable engineers with a unique job description – deploy and maintain nearly 440,000 miles of fiber optic cable in one of the harshest environments on earth, 30,000 feet under the sea.

That’s about as deep as Mount Everest is high.

Though undersea cables are buried well beneath the sediment of the ocean floor, they are sometimes damaged or unburied. This is from fishing, anchors, storms or even underwater landslides caused by earthquakes.

When that happens, my team gears up and embarks on a commercial cable ship to find the damage and repair it. Check out the video above to follow me along on a recent cable repair. My job at sea can be challenging.  The cable ship operates 24x7. Weather, tides, and the general unpredictability of the open ocean can all affect our work.

When the ship gets close to the location of the damaged cable, we operate technology like Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) on the seabed to find the exact location. These robotic ocean floor rovers are deployed on the seabed to detect the buried cable.

A special grappling tool breaks through the seabed to uncover the cable and bring it up to the surface.   Most undersea cables are about as thick as a baseball bat —ranging from 1 to 3 inches in diameter. So it’s important we use precise locating techniques to find the damaged cable at sea.

When the cable is brought up onto the ship we remove the damaged section, replace it with spare cable that is spliced and tested and lower it back on the sea floor.  Then, it’s time to turn the ship around and head home. A little different than my commute back on land.

Leading the Charge:  150 Years of Undersea Cables

Undersea cables and AT&T have a long history. Undersea cables have connected people and continents since dots and dashes were first exchanged on undersea telegraph cables installed in the mid 1800’s. 

In 1955, we led the installation of the very first trans-Atlantic telephone cable from North America to Europe. It was 2,235 miles long and carried 48 telephone circuits—that’s just 48 phone calls at a time.

Fast forward to 2017. We now operate nearly 90 undersea cable systems, stretching more than 438,000 miles — enough cable to go around the globe 17 times at the equator. Our cables carry traffic between the U.S. and other part of the globe at speeds up to 11 terabits per second. To put that in context, you could download 60 one-hour episodes of your favorite TV series in one-tenth of one second from 5,500 miles away.

While other companies are just beginning to lay their network under water, AT&T has led the charge for more than 60 years. I’ve been working on undersea cables my entire career – nearly 30 years. I’ve seen the technology evolve drastically. But one thing remains the same — these cables will always be a vital piece of our global network. I’m excited to see how the technology continues to evolve in the next 30 years.

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Eric Wagner - Director in the Undersea Cable Operations group, Technical Field Services

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