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Facebook and Microsoft have finished laying 4000 mile long undersea data cable between the US and Spain

The hunger for ever-increasing volumes of available data across the world has given the undersea cable industry something of a golden age recently. In 2015 16,000km of submarine cable was laid. In 2016 that had jumped to 100.000km, the sector is now worth five times what it was just a handful of years ago. The most recent achievement was led by two of the world’s most powerful digital companies who have just finished laying a transatlantic undersea cable that carries more data than any other.

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The idea was sparked by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The 2012 storm knocked out wireless servers for days. Microsoft’s Frank Rey who heads up global network strategy said: “It was a major disruption. The entire network between North America and Europe was isolated for a number of hours. For us, the storm brought to light a potential challenge in the consolidation of transatlantic cables that all landed in New York and New Jersey.”

Dubbed ‘Marea’ (Spanish for tide), the 6,600km cable, lying 17,000 ft. below the ocean’s surface, stretches from Bilbao, Spain to Virginia Beach, Virginia. It has come across obstacles like underwater volcanoes, coral reefs and earthquake zones. It weighs over 10m pounds and can transfer 160 terabits of data every second. Microsoft says this is “more than 16m times faster than the average home internet connection, making it capable of streaming 71m high-def videos simultaneously.” In some parts Marea, which is made up of eight optic cables encompassed in copper, lies on the sea-bed. In other areas it has been buried to protect them from shipping traffic.

It is needed too. Between 2014 and 2016 international bandwidth usage doubled – going to 3,544 terabits per second. Traditionally Facebook and Microsoft (who were behind the Marea) and other companies leased international bandwidth. Demand is only going one way, and it’s estimated that there will be an eight-fold increase in usage by 2025. Now they need to have their own. The likes of Google aren’t far behind.

Microsoft have highlighted the cable’s “open” design saying this future-proofing will allow it to support higher bandwidth as technology advances. Rafael Arranz, chief operating officer for Telxius said: “All of these applications, especially everything that is driven by video, consume a huge amount of bandwidth. So everybody needs to be connected with a high-volume high-bandwidth infrastructure, with its unique route, this cable is going to be able to absorb and deliver back-and-forth traffic to strengthen communications, not just across the Atlantic but across the globe.”

President of Microsoft Brad Smith said: “Marea comes at a critical time. Submarine cables in the Atlantic already carry 55% more data than trans-Pacific routes and 40% more data than between the US and Latin America, there is no question that the demand for data flows across the Atlantic will continue to increase and Marea will provide a critical connection for the United States, Spain and beyond.”

TeleGeography, a market-research firm, estimate that $9.2bn is going to be invested in the undersea cable industry between 2016 – 2018. That’s five times as much as in the previous three years. Waiting for deployment is the Hawaiki submarine cable system – a 14,000km pipeline of fibre-optic cables and equipment – that will connect Australia and New Zealand to the US, Hawaii and American Samoa. It’s expected to be complete by mid-2018.