It’s hard to imagine life without the internet – there would be no binge-watching Netflix, email or shopping on Amazon. However, less than 25 years ago few people had even heard of the internet. During this time of immense change, advancements in the internet’s backbone – a vast network of international undersea cables – has kept our Head of Global Marine Operations, Phil Murphy, on his toes during a long career at Telstra.
It’s dizzying to think how much the world has changed since the early mass adoption of the internet in the 1990s. It is now part of many aspects of everyday life and is made possible by a vast network of subsea cables crisscrossing the ocean floor. Today we rely on these cables to transport 99 per cent of our international data – the remaining one per cent is transmitted via satellite.
Connecting the world via subsea cables isn’t exactly new, but it has changed a lot since the first one was laid between England and France in the 1850s. Capable of electronically transmitting Morse code one character every two minutes, this telegraph cable was made of copper. Imagine today’s typical SMS taking more than five hours to send!
OTC employees help make history by laying the ANZCAN cable along Bondi Beach in 1983.
Fast-forward to more recent history – the 1980s – and voice traffic was booming thanks to the use of landlines. It wasn’t until the 1990s that today’s modern subsea cable using digital fibre-optic technology became available for commercial use. Using rapid pulses of laser light carried by hair-thin glass strands, this new technology could transmit data at much higher capacity. It would drastically reduce communications times so there was less delay compared to satellite, when speaking on the phone. Even so, it was not yet known that this fibre-optic technology would be the foundation for the internet as we now know it.
I joined what was then the Overseas Telecommunications Commission, a precursor to Telstra, as an engineering graduate in 1975 and first worked on a subsea cable project in the early 80s. This new cable, called ANZCAN, would span the ocean floor to connect Australia with New Zealand and Canada. For Australia, this was a significant milestone for international connectivity. Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the cable in 1984 at the Sydney Opera House and I was there to watch.
By the mid-90s many of us were familiarising ourselves with dial-up internet. I worked on subsea cables projects connecting Australia and New Zealand, as well as Hawaii and Guam. These cables would all enter service before 1995. As internet adoption increased, the internet giants of today like Google and Amazon were created, and encyclopaedias were quickly replaced by “surfing the web.” There were around 16 million people online in 1995. Today, with broadband and mobile internet that figure is close to four billion.
As the technology we use to connect has changed, so too has the design and capacity of our cables. We’ve gone from designing cables primarily for voice calls to ones that cater for the enormous demand for data driven by the rise of video streaming, cloud computing and virtual reality. To put this in context, in the late 1980s, 75 per cent of developed countries’ communication was voice traffic. Today, 65 per cent of traffic is data.
The yellow ANZCAN cable emerges from the power feed equipment that boosts the signal on its 14,820 km journey across the Pacific Ocean.
To this day I continue to work on Telstra’s subsea cable projects that enable millions of consumers and businesses around the world to connect to the internet. Work is currently underway to build INDIGO – a new subsea cable system that will connect Perth and Southeast Asia. At speeds of 36 terabits per second, INDIGO will deliver around 40 times more capacity than the current cable that runs between Perth and Singapore.
Looking back, the technology of the 1980s is almost unrecognisable. When we consider that the last 30 years brought us Facebook, Google and more recently the Internet of Things (IoT), I can only imagine what incredible advancements we’ll see next to the technology that keeps us all connected.
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