How One Ship's Anchor Disrupted Internet Access in 6 Countries

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In a reminder of just how fragile this web we've weaved across the globe is, a ship dropped anchor outside the Kenyan port of Mombasa and happened to hit a bundle of undersea fiber optic cables connecting east Africa to the Internet. Now, the BBC reports, six countries -- Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and a piece of South Sudan -- are going to experience Internet slowdowns as less pipe is available to carry the same amount of traffic.

The slowdown, which could take two weeks to repair, could be particularly tough for Kenya's burgeoning tech scene, which locals felt was going to be at its strongest yet in 2012.

As much as Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was mocked for calling the Internet "a series of tubes," the Internet's physical manifestation looks a lot like (surprise!) a series of tubes.

It's difficult to find great photos or descriptions of laying undersea cable (i.e. tubes), but Alcatel-Lucent released a video of one of its ships being loaded up with cable to an epic soundtrack. The most mindblowing shot comes about 1:45 into the video in which we get to look at the GIGANTIC spool off which the cable is pulled. It's 20 feet tall and wound many feet deep.

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The art and science of laying underwater cable have been around since the days of the telegraph, when Americans tried desperately to connect themselves to Europe via an underwater link. Here's what the old apparatus used to look like.



Since then, cables running under the ocean have been improved and better armored and -- like all cables -- made to carry far more data. The ships carrying them are much larger and carry a lot more cable. Nonetheless, as you can see in the video below, some things haven't changed much in the century and a half we've been sending messages under the sea. In essence, cable is fed onto a spool and dropped into the water. Nowadays, the cables are buried under the ocean bed. But still, everyone has to hope that nothing heavy enough to damage the cables falls into the depths. And these undersea cables are still one of the most vulnerable pieces of our information infrastructure, as millions of east Africans just found out. 
 


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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