The undersea cables that connect California to the rest of the world

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Undersea fiber optic cables connect the world, but why is Hermosa Beach a popular landing site for them? And what price do we pay for our digital connections?

South America (SAM-1) NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean, 2015 C-Print 16 × 20 in. Copyright Trevor Paglen. Courtesy of the Artist, Metro Pictures New York, Altman Siegel San Francisco (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Most of the Internet arrives to you through undersea cables the width of a garden hose. Pulses of light move along optical fibers made of silica glass the thickness of a human hair.

“The internet is primarily made of fiber optic cables, cables filled with light,” said Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. “There are about a dozen places in the world where more networks of the Internet physically connect to each other than most anywhere else.”

Currently there is a splurge of undersea cable construction going on in the Pacific, connecting the Southland to the Pacific Rim and back to One Wilshire, the glass and steel skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles that is filled with data servers and cables.

One of the primary landing spots is the city of Hermosa Beach.

“It’s a strategic location for them to be able to access One Wilshire. So they’re looking for locations that get them close to their big hubs,” explained Ken Robertson, community development director for the City of Hermosa Beach.

“One of the other advantages we have in Hermosa Beach is that we own our beach,” he added, meaning that the telecom companies don’t have to deal with LA County regulations.

A manhole cover in Hermosa Beach is the access point for a transpacific fiber optic cable built by TyCom in 2002. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“It’s so difficult to get these cables built. There are very difficult regulatory hurdles and be a part of it is, where do you come on land?” said Chris Brungardt, senior vice president of RTI, the undersea fiber optic cable developer. “And a big part of that is having a willing partner, that’s willing to go through the process with you to be able to have the cable land in their city.”

Those cables run under the oceans, “a space that’s inhospitable to humans” says Nicole Starosielski, author of The Undersea Network, yet “enables the most high tech communications that we currently have.”

Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft: these web giants are now building their own undersea cable systems, so they have control over the infrastructure they depend on.

“I think it’s important to recognize that this sort of current boom in construction, this handful of new cables that we’re seeing across the Atlantic and Pacific, really is the first time in basically 15 years that we’ve been seeing that intensity of construction,” Blum said. “And it’s important to recognize that it’s no longer driven by the telecom companies but it’s really driven by the major names of the Internet who are remaking the Internet on their own.”

One of the biggest cables in the pipeline is being built by Facebook and Google to connect Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Called the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN),  the nearly eight thousand mile long high-speed cable will land at Dockweiler Beach just west of LAX.

Google says it will be able to move data at a speed of 120 terabits per second, making it possible to have 80 million concurrent HD video conference calls between Hong Kong and LA.

Google also built a cable between Oregon and Japan, and Facebook and Microsoft built one connecting Virginia to Spain.

“Google and Facebook are getting into this market and they are starting to have a significant impact in the cable industry,” Starosielski said. “But they’re not precluding the tech little guys from joining up, per se. More they’re having an effect on the historical monopolies which are the telecommunications companies, which we often don’t think about in terms of tech but those were the big tech companies before.”

Submarine Cable Map, courtesy of TeleGeography.

So why should we care whether Facebook lays its own cables rather than buying capacity from some telecommunications company?

And is there any connection between the revelations about Cambridge Analytica and cable ownership?

“The relationship is that the undersea cable is part of Facebook’s investment in infrastructure. And the more infrastructure that Facebook owns the more solid its role is in the tech industry and it is, in terms of a sort of monopoly platform,” Starosielski said. “When a company is tied through regulations or is tied in to lots of infrastructural networks then it’s beholden to other companies and other processes and to political negotiations.”

So that has to do with how tech companies use cables to send data – and acquire our personal data.

Photographer Trevor Paglen is interested in how governments get information, through spy agencies tapping undersea cables. The practice dates back to the Cold War.

“These places that connect the continents to one another are extremely important places if you want to conduct global surveillance, because you have an enormous amount of the Internet going through one place right,” Paglen said.

“One of the things that you quickly realize when you start looking at the Internet is that the Internet is many things but one of the things that it is, is a massive surveillance structure and that is true of somebody like the National Security Agency. But that’s also true of a Facebook or a Google. These are companies that are in the business of collecting as much information as possible about you.”

Banner image: A manhole cover in Hermosa Beach is the access point for a transpacific fiber optic cable built by TyCom in 2002. Photo by Avishay Artsy.