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The Cloud Under The Sea

The industry responsible for laying the cables for the internet traces its origins back far beyond the internet, past even the telephone, to the early days of telegraphy. It’s invisible, under-appreciated, analog. Few people set out to join the profession, mostly because few people know it exists. 

The Verge

19 Apr 2024

Want a career connecting the world?   

An immersive long read about laying the cables that the internet and we all rely upon. 
The home of the Fourth Portal, St Andrew's Church, is dedicated to those who work and travel the seas. This excellent long read follows the journey of those who repair the cables of the worldwide internet, revealing a fascinating life and opportunities for employment to see a whole new world.  

"St Andrew's Waterside Church Mission for Sailors, Fishermen and Emigrants, 1864-1939 was established in 1864 to serve merchant seamen, fishermen and emigrants passing through the parish of Holy Trinity at Milton-next-Gravesend on 'sound Church principles', (ie 'high' or mainstream rather than 'low' church within the Church of England)." (


“It hasn’t changed in 150 years... The Victorians did it that way and we’re doing it the same way.”

"The industry responsible for this crucial work traces its origins back far beyond the internet, past even the telephone, to the early days of telegraphy. It’s invisible, underappreciated, analog. Few people set out to join the profession, mostly because few people know it exists. 

Others come to the field from merchant navies, marine construction, cable engineering, geology, optics, or other tangentially related disciplines. When Fumihide Kobayashi, the submersible operator — a tall and solidly built man from the mountain region of Nagano — joined KCS at the age of 20, he thought he would be working on ship maintenance, not working aboard a maintenance ship. He had never been on a boat before, but Hirai enticed him to stay with stories of all the whales and other marine creatures he would see on the remote ocean.

Once people are in, they tend to stay. For some, it’s the adventure — repairing cables in the churning currents of the Congo Canyon and enduring hull-denting North Atlantic storms. Others find a sense of purpose in maintaining the infrastructure on which society depends, even if most people’s response when they hear about their job is, But isn’t the internet all satellites by now? The sheer scale of the work can be thrilling, too. People will sometimes note that these are the largest construction projects humanity has ever built or sum up a decades-long resume by saying they’ve laid enough cable to circle the planet six times.

The world is in the midst of a cable boom, with multiple new transoceanic lines announced every year. However, there is growing concern that the industry responsible for maintaining these cables is running perilously lean. There are 77 cable ships in the world, according to data supplied by SubTel Forum, but most are focused on the more profitable work of laying new systems. Only 22 are designated for repair, and it’s an ageing and eclectic fleet. Often, maintenance is their second act. Some, like Alcatel’s Ile de Molene, are converted tugs.

“One of the biggest problems we have in this industry is attracting new people to it,” said Constable. He recalled another panel he was on in Singapore meant to introduce university students to the industry. “The audience was probably about 10 university kids and 60 old grey people from the industry just filling out their day,” he said. When he speaks with students looking to get into tech, he tries to convince them that subsea cables are also part — a foundational part — of the tech industry. “They all want to be data scientists and that sort of stuff,” he said. “But for me, I find this industry fascinating. You’re dealing with the most hostile environment on the planet, eight kilometres deep in the oceans, working with some pretty high technology, travelling all over the world. You’re on the forefront of geopolitics, and it’s critical for the whole way the world operates now.”

The industry’s biggest recruiting challenge, however, is the industry’s invisibility. It’s a truism that people don’t think about infrastructure until it breaks, but they tend not to think about fixing it, either. In his 2014 essay, “Rethinking Repair,” professor of information science Steven Jackson argued that contemporary thinking about technology romanticizes moments of invention over the ongoing work of maintenance, though it is equally important to the deployment of functional technology in the world. There are few better examples than the subsea cable industry, which, for over a century, has been so effective at quickly fixing faults that the public has rarely had a chance to notice. Or as one industry veteran put it, “We are one of the best-kept secrets in the world, because things just work.” 

For more:

Security, Infrastructure

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