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Here's what to takes to lay Google's 9,000km undersea cable

Tim Hornyak | July 15, 2015
It takes a plow the size of a small house, a robot the size of a truck and a purpose-built ship to install Google's latest oceanic infrastructure project -- a super-fast submarine Internet cable linking the U.S. and Japan.

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A worker supervises a copper pipe spool at NEC's OCC's plant in Kitakyushu, Japan, where cable for the Google-backed FASTER transpacific Internet cable is being manufactured. Credit: Tim Hornyak

It takes a plow the size of a small house, a robot the size of a truck and a purpose-built ship to install Google's latest oceanic infrastructure project -- a super-fast submarine Internet cable linking the U.S. and Japan.

The US$300 million FASTER cable system, backed by Google and East Asian telecom firms, will have a peak capacity of 60 Tbps (terabits per second) when it's ready next year.

About 6,000 kilometers of the cable has been loaded onto the cable ship René Descartes, which is docked at a submarine cable factory in Kitakyushu, southern Japan, operated by NEC group firm OCC. It will be the first time for the vessel, owned by French telecom firm Orange, and her crew to lay some 9,000 km of cable in one go.

One morning last week the slim cable, about 2 centimeters in diameter, was being loaded from the factory to the ship at its dock. Since the cable is mostly white and featureless, it takes a keen eye to see that it's actually moving into the vessel, and rather quickly, on a long bed of rollers.

At 144.5 meters, the length of one and a half football fields, the René Descartes has three enormous tanks below its main deck into which the cable is being spooled.

Each tank measures 16 meters across and is about 8 meters tall. As the cable is carefully fed into one of these giant silos, a worker walking in a circle under its opening receives it and passes it to colleagues who tuck it in snugly against the loops already in the tank. A tangle could cause serious problems when the cable is being placed on the ocean floor.

The cable wranglers have to do this for the 9,000 km of cable that will stretch from Japan to the coast of Oregon.

"The most important challenge is the length of the cable," said Claude Le Maguer, an Orange Marine engineer in charge of the operation. "It's the first time that we will lay such a long distance at the same time."

Now and again, a crane lifts a repeater unit aboard the René Descartes. Like copper-hued beads strung on a long white necklace, these missile-shaped devices, weighing 200 kilograms or more and placed every 40-100 km, amplify the signals traveling through the thin optical fibers in the cable. They're gingerly placed on racks above the tanks, the cable forming short separate loops to and from the tanks.

 

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