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The Best Visualization of the Internet's Submarine Backbone Yet

The half a million miles of fibre optic cable buried under the ocean floor, visualized.
Image: Built Visible

A little Friday trivia for you: The first undersea cable carrying the internet from point A to B was built in 1989, connecting the UK, birthplace of the internet, and France. It was a rather dinky line by today's standards, under 100 miles long. That was closely followed by an even tinier cable, a short 20 miles between England and Ireland.

In fact, undersea cables date back to the early 1800s, when they were used to send transatlantic telegraphs and eventually phone calls. The submarine cable network grew exponentially with the rise of the internet, and today there are 277 fibre optic cables spanning the seven seas and seven continents. These 600,000 miles of cable buried underneath and sitting on top of the ocean floor carry the vast majority of online communication around the world. It's the physical backbone of the global economy.


You can now watch the rapid spread of the submerged network of internet cables as it ballooned over the last 30 years, via this interactive map, created by Built Visible and based on data from the telecom market research firm TeleGeography, which also hosts the best reference source for undersea cables.

It’s a pretty cool graphic, if, like me, you find the history of internet infrastructure quite fascinating. The map breaks down the spread of cables by year, and you can click on individual lines for more details, like the name of the cable and its length. (Trivia fact #2: The longest undersea fibre optic cable spans over 8,000 miles, from Germany to South Korea, connecting 32 different countries.)

Even more interesting, the map shows who owns all this hulking metal, and is tasked with the unenviable job of maintaining the vulnerable infrastructure, which has battled shark bites, whale entanglements, typhoons, earthquakes, and ship anchors over the years.

The cables are owned by handful of major telecom and service providers around the world, including the likes of Verizon and AT&T, along with lesser-known giants like Tata and Level 3. Recently, Facebook and Google have joined the list.

We've written before about the tech giants' plans to carry internet access across the digital divide, to developing nations and remote areas around the world. The futurist plans involve drones and laserssatellites, and balloons—but also, good old-fashioned submarine cables.

Facebook built one just this year, running along the South Pacific from Malaysia to Japan. Google's cable takes a similar route, but it also connects to another line that stretches across the Pacific ocean to California. It makes you wonder what a map showing the next 30 years of internet expansion will look like.