“The Internet is a series of tubes,” the late Sen. Ted Stevens infamously remarked in a 2006 speech on net neutrality. The quote quickly went viral, harshly mocked by the “Daily Show” and dozens of amateur YouTube users.
But Stevens was kind of right. The physical structure that gets Internet data from one point to another is, in fact, a bunch of tubes, or submarine cables. And you can see exactly what those cables look like in a very cool, interactive map released today by data firm Telegeography. It shows the network of 188 existing and planned submarine cables used to carry Internet data (you can play with an interactive version of the map here):
Only 10 percent of Internet traffic currently moves through satellites. So this actually is a pretty good map of how most of the Internet’s data travels: through more than a half-million miles of privately owned, three-inch thick, submarine cables (and, once those hit land, above-ground cables).
Sometimes, the tubes that carry the Internet break. The causes can range from natural disruptions — an undersea earthquake, for example — to ship anchors digging up cables. The most common problem is fishing nets dragging cables up, although the cables have also had to fend off sharks (shark bites cause damage to Internet cables every year, according to the International Cable Protection Committee). Serious damage can break the tubes; a 2006 underwater earthquake off the coast of Taiwan, for example, brought service there to a screeching halt. There is actually a whole fleet of ships dedicated to fixing the Internet’s damaged cables. Popular Mechanics wrote a fascinating story about them a few years ago. The ships use sonar, video cameras and a multimillion-dollar remotely operated vehicle affectionately named “The Beast” to locate and fix damaged cables.
So, the late Sen. Stevens was pretty accurate in describing the Internet as a series of tubes — and probably among the most important and best-cared-for tubes out there.