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First person: 'I helped to connect families ... from country to country'

(Submarine Cable Map courtesy of TeleGeography)
(Submarine Cable Map courtesy of TeleGeography)

Listen to our full hour on a new rivalry between the U.S. and China over the world’s undersea cables here.

Thousands of miles of fiber optic cable at the bottom of the world’s oceans carry more than 95% of the world’s data, from phone calls and emails to encrypted military secrets.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Steve Arsenault is director of Global Subsea Solutions for IT Telecom, a Canadian fiber optic cable laying firm. And he says people don’t realize that much of what they do on the Internet travels on the ocean floor.

STEVE ARSENAULT: There is no doubt that a misconception exists that global communications are somehow facilitated by satellites. I mean, it’s funny to me because, you know, you ask anyone, you know, what, this signal path takes for a given trans-oceanic phone call, and almost no one will tell you that it’s through an underwater cable. But the fact remains, there are literally thousands and thousands of kilometers of cable underwater just lying there.

CHAKRABARTI: Rick Chislett also works for IT Telecom, he spent 41 years on its cable laying ships as the manager of splicing and testing. He’s semi-retired in Windsor, Nova Scotia, now, but he’ll be back out on the ocean off the coast of Denmark in a couple of days. So we asked him, what’s it like laying fiber optic cable around the world?

RICK CHISLETT: My responsibility was managing the splicing and testing on board. I also look after the loading of the vessels just to make sure that the cable is stored in a hole and in the correct manner. Today, I checked the crew manifest and onboard our ship right now there are 50 crew members. And they are in transit to load cable. And then it will proceed to Denmark. And in Denmark, there is more cable to be loaded. They will be testing and jointing.

On some projects when we lay close to shore where cable can become damaged by fishing anchors, we will need to bury it. And we use what we call a subsea plow. And we tow this behind the vessel. Plow weighs roughly about 30 ton. The cable will leave the ship, go down to the seabed, go through the plow and out the back end of the plow. I will create a trench depending on the seabed conditions, soft or how hard it is, it could be carried to a maximum of two meters.

We were on a particular project about three years ago, off the west coast of South America and the bottom conditions off the coast is very mountainous. And we were toeing the sea plow behind us. We came to an area where it was a downslope and normally on downslopes, our survey team are able to identify them, and the C-Plow operators are able to slow it down.

But for some reason it didn’t slow it down fast enough. It overran the cable, and it damaged the cable at that time. The plow overturned on its side, so the ship came to a complete stop. The cable damage was repaired in probably I think about 20 hours, and the plow damage took about two days.

We do get a lot of people who spend a lot of years out on the water and enjoy it. The ship crew becomes something like a family, you know. Everybody gets along and that kind of thing. And you have to because you’re on a vessel that’s only 115 meters long. Food is good. Which is always great. For me, I worked for 40 plus years at this business. And I feel that I helped to connect families together, people together from country to country. I feel good about contributing that to the world. And I have to say, I’ve worked all over the world.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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