The cloud is not an abstraction. Your photos, uploaded to Google’s cloud, don’t float in the ether. Your iCloud backups don’t break bread with the gods. The metaverse that Facebook is so eager to build will not exist in the heavens.
The name “cloud” is a linguistic trick – a way of hiding that controls the underlying technology of the Internet – and the enormous power they wield. Stop thinking about it for a moment and the whole notion is weird. The cloud is in fact a network of cables and servers that spans the world: once the preserve of obscure telecommunications companies, it is now increasingly owned and controlled by Big Tech – Google and Facebook are carving out their share of the cloud. Lion.
Building the capacity of the data center is sort of a full-time job for Big Tech. Here, in large facilities spread across the globe, your most private photos and messages are stored on a hard drive on an anonymous computer in an anonymous rack, stacked alongside thousands of others in a data center at the outside of town, located somewhere where energy and land are cheap.
The cloud is a large physical network. It is part of the backbone of the Internet, itself made up largely of a network of cables crossing the oceans of the world. It’s easy to imagine them bigger or taller than they are – in reality, they are usually the width of a garden hose, buried a short distance from the shore for safety reasons, but at- beyond this point, they are allowed to sit freely on the seabed.
A conversation with Bruce Neilson-Watts, who spent 16 years as a navigator, engineer and then boat captain working on laying and repairing cables, sheds some light on what they look like and how they work. The actual part of the cable that carries information across the continent is just the smallest core of the cable the width of the garden hose, with even that small thickness capable of carrying up to 100 Gb / s or even 400. Gb / s on newer cables in a fraction of a second.
Much of the rest of the width is made of petroleum jelly – yes, the same thing that comes in a jar of petroleum jelly – meant to protect the cables from water damage and corrosion, which means that even the physical structure of ‘The internet is, in fact, lubricated. Do whatever you want with it.
The ownership of the data centers – and often, therefore, our data – that powers the Internet is the subject of almost constant public debate. This is the question that drives conversations about technology monopolies and the dominating power of internet platforms. But the same cannot be said of these transatlantic cables, nearly 1.5 million kilometers of which now cross almost every part of the globe.
These operators tend to stay out of sight. In fact, many of the world’s international cables are often owned by consortia of companies, which are often rivals in other contexts. Some large Internet cables list as many as 50 owners, while only about a quarter appear to be operated by a single company.
These companies charge others for the amount of data they transmit through the cables they own, but they also trade access to cables belonging to others in exchange for free access to theirs – a silent system of sharing. and sharing alike behind huge telecom companies, all behind the scenes.
The world’s largest cable owner is a household name, at least to Americans – it’s AT&T, which owns a stake in about 230,000 kilometers of international Internet cable, or about a sixth of the total. But looking at the others in the top ten reveals why Big Tech and Western governments are starting to pay more attention to the seemingly annoying problem of cable ownership: in second place is China Telecom, while Chunghwa Telecom (based in Taiwan) is third and China Unicorn. is sixth.
In tenth and eleventh places, however, are some very familiar names: Facebook and Google. Big Tech is getting into big cables – and doing it in a big way. In recent years, 80% of investments in new cables have come from the two US tech giants. To date, Facebook owns or co-owns 99,399 kilometers of cable, Google 95,876 kilometers. And other investments are on the way: in August, Facebook and Google announced their plans to build a 12,000-kilometer submarine cable, Apricot, which will link Singapore, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia. when completed in 2024. For Google, following an earlier announcement for the Echo submarine cable, which will connect California, Singapore, Guam and Indonesia. For its part, Facebook has given its support to the coalition of telecom operators which is building what could turn out to be the longest submarine cable of all time: 2Africa, a 45,000 kilometer long rope planned to encompass the entire African continent and connect 33 countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East by 2024. As of May 2020 Bloomberg reported that the project will cost less than a billion dollars – but that was before Facebook announced several extensions of the initial design.
The stated motivations for these efforts vary. Facebook in particular sees part of its efforts to improve internet access worldwide – while also gaining some advantage through user growth if that is successful. Google primarily highlights how greater connectivity will boost local economic prosperity.