global tech

This Website Is Carried by the Ocean

A tale of two towns, 10,000 miles apart, connected by mud and light.

Photo: Peter Garritano/REX/Shutterstock
Photo: Peter Garritano/REX/Shutterstock

Like any network, the internet is made up of nodes and edges. One of the largest nodes in the world lives in an old Art Deco building on Hudson Street in downtown New York City, two-and-a-half blocks west of Broadway. Over 70 million feet of cables fill racks that run up the walls and across the ceilings of this internet “carrier hotel.” It’s the single densest connector in NYC to the transatlantic cables that send data to Europe.

To get from New York to Europe, packets of data flow through fiber cables that snake under the Atlantic Ocean. The data’s transoceanic trip starts on a beach, in an unmarked building called a cable landing station. There’s an important cable landing station in a small town on the Jersey Shore called Manasquan. Here, data connect to a submarine cable called TAT-14.

TAT-14 is 9,587 miles long — that’s over three times the width of the United States. Data travel across it in a matter of milliseconds. When TAT-14 opened for business in 2001, Telia boasted that it could carry the content of over 200 DVDs per second. The cable is heavily armed and reinforced with steel to prevent any trawlers, sharks, or other sharp deep-sea objects from disrupting internet traffic.

Only four pairs of fiber run through the cable. Each pair is made up of one optical fiber and one amplifier. The optical fiber carries data across the Atlantic Ocean via waves of light, and the amplifier powers the light. Only two of the fiber pairs are active. The other two are backups.

Cables like these are responsible for transmitting 99 percent of all data that travels overseas. They carry emails, texts, photos, videos, and websites over fractions of nanometers of light. After leaving the beaches of New Jersey, TAT-14 crosses the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and loops north of the United Kingdom. It surfaces on the beaches of Nørre Nebel.

Beaches, Rye Bread, and Internet

Nørre Nebel is a small town on the western coast of Denmark. A little over 1,300 people live there, but that number swells in the summertime, when tourists come to enjoy the wide sandy beaches.

Nørre Nebel is the last town where vacationers can stock up on provisions before hitting the beach. There’s a butcher, an electronics store, clothing stores, pizzerias, and four supermarkets. Hardy’s Bakery sits at 40 Bredgade, the main street that means “Broadway” in Danish. Hardy’s Bakery has world-famous rye bread and 22 different kinds of rolls.

Jacob Askham-Christensen grew up in the Hardy’s Bakery after his dad bought it in 1980. He remembers the old factory buildings that used to be clustered on a street behind Bredgade. One of the old factories has been replaced by a new, unmarked brick building with a fence around it. This is the landing station for TAT-14.

“It’s a strange building because there’s a fence around it,” Askham-Christensen says. “In Denmark, we don’t use fences because we are really equal in terms of economics. So we don’t need fences.”

Askham-Christensen found out that the strange brick building was a major internet node when he read about it in a Danish newspaper. But he doubts that many people know about Nørre Nebel’s role as the internet’s gateway to Scandinavia. Askham-Christensen explains that Danes are more likely to know Nørre Nebel for their rye bread.

“People from Copenhagen, from the totally opposite side of the country, come here to buy rye bread,” says Askham-Christensen.

Under normal circumstances, the cable station in New Jersey and the cable station in Nørre Nebel power about half of TAT-14 from each end, meeting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in a kind of ethereal transatlantic handshake. But if anything goes wrong on either end of the cable, each station is prepared to power the entire cable alone using fuel from huge diesel reserve tanks that can run for weeks without resupplying.

When the TAT-14 cable stations in New Jersey lost power during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the station at Nørre Nebel powered all of TAT-14 from coast to coast. Only a few employees manage the station at Nørre Nebel, but when something goes wrong, they run 24-hour shifts to keep their stretch of the undersea network afloat.

A Self-healing Ring

The global internet cable system is redundant. Data is simply rerouted to a different cable if one cable goes down. But there are a finite number of cables. TAT-14 is one of about 18 submarine cables that carry data directly from the Northeastern Seaboard to Europe. Damages to a major cable artery have caused notable latency, and sometimes total blackouts.

But under normal circumstances, if anything were to happen to a leg of TAT-14, it’s unlikely that even the most impatient of emailers would notice. TAT-14 runs in a self-healing ring. The northern leg connects Manasquan, New Jersey, to Nørre Nebel. Then a southern leg connects Nørre Nebel to Germany, the Netherlands, France, and the U.K., before traveling back across the ocean floor and completing the ring in Tuckerton, New Jersey.

The cable station in Tuckerton, New Jersey, has a faux exterior that makes it look like a cluster of townhouses, helping it blend into the surrounding residential neighborhood. But signs of its true nature are everywhere. The building lives on a street called Cable Drive and a nearby sign says, “WARNING: Transcontinental Cable Route.”

In total, there are seven cable stations across six countries that keep TAT-14 running. They lie among us, behind fences and high-security checkpoints. The people who work there maintain the global internet, stewarding our data safely ashore.

Contrary to common belief, our emails don’t travel as radio waves, through space, from satellite to satellite. They travel as light, through mud, from beach to beach.

This Article Is Brought to You Through Sea and Mud