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Fibre-optic cables: the present and future of digital technology

31-08-2021

Responsible for 99% of the data and voice traffic that circulates on the internet, these fibre cables - like the one recently inaugurated by EllaLink, the first high-capacity cable to connect Brazil to Europe - have become essential for transmitting digital services with a large volume of data to reduce longer distance connectivity.

The entry into operation of EllaLink's high-capacity fibre-optic undersea cable, the first to directly connect South America to Europe, comes at a time when the world is entering a new stage of the digital era, marked by the ever-increasing traffic of large volumes of data between countries and continents.  

What few people know is that the present and future of digital technology basically depend on undersea fibre-optic cables. They carry 99% of the data and voice traffic that circulates on the internet, according to a survey by TeleGeography, a telecom market research company.

In practise, these undersea cables have become essential to run the digital applications and services that will move the global economy over the next decade - from streaming services to telemedicine, through the Internet of Things (IoT), driverless cars, virtual reality, e-games and financial services, as well as future artificial intelligence applications. 

The recently inaugurated EllaLink cable helps expand this connection between Brazil and the rest of the world. It is the result of a private investment of 1 billion Brazilian reais, and links Fortaleza, in Ceará, to Sines in Portugal. It contains 4 optical fibre pairs and extends for 6,000 kilometres along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Each fibre is the thickness of a strand of hair. 

The biggest benefit that the EllaLink cable brings to both continents is its capacity of 100 terabits per second (Tbps), reducing latency - a factor that ensures quality in internet speed. Before, most fibre-optic cable connections between South America and Europe passed through the United States.

As Fortaleza is closer to the European continent than to North America, the new cable makes it possible to reduce latency by up to 50%, that is, the response time in data transmission. Digital businesses, cloud services, electronic banking, entertainment media and online games are already benefiting from the new network. 

Measure bandwidth and fibre-cables

Undersea cables have always been essential for long-range communication. The first was installed in 1858, between Ireland and Canada, for telegraph traffic.

By 1900 there were already 208,000 kilometres of undersea cables spread across the oceans. They subsequently ended up being repurposed for telephone transmission.  

Undersea fibre-optic cables, with more advanced technology, were developed in the mid-1980s. They have become a cheaper and faster alternative for transmitting large volumes of data compared to satellites - more effective in providing Internet access to remote areas where it is physically difficult or prohibitively expensive to build a terrestrial or undersea cable. 

Today, 426 undersea fibre-optic cables span a mesh of 1.6 million kilometres on the ocean floor.

The rapid development of digital technology is increasingly favouring the transmission of large volumes of low-latency data and the use of cloud computing.

This has led the giant companies in the sector - Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon - to invest more than $20 billion in recent years in building their own undersea fibre-optic cables to meet the demand for greater bandwidth to transmit their data. 

On a connection or network, bandwidth determines how fast data travels over a specific network. So: the greater the bandwidth, the faster the connection speed, since more data will pass through it at the same time.

Globally, internet bandwidth growth was 35% in 2020, while experts predicted a 26% increase in data transmission capacity. 

Growth Latin America

In Latin America, internet bandwidth rose 32% in 2020. This reinforces the importance of the EllaLink cable to meet the increase of new digital applications, such as cloud computing and streaming. And we know how much intensive use of bandwidth these applications require.

The growth in demand for bandwidth is driving the creation of an increasingly dense and widespread network infrastructure, outside the current model of concentration in traditional hubs, with a significant increase in demand for connectivity in sub-regions.  

This trend, which opposes the concentration of infrastructure for the installation of Data Centres, exchange points and undersea cables in large centres of global convergence, such as the USA, reinforces the importance of the new transatlantic route between Fortaleza and Sines, offered by the EllaLink cable.

“This fact changes the game for European customers in particular because they realise that they don't need to operate in North America to reach Latin America”, says Philippe Dumont, CEO of EllaLink.  

Dumont predicts increased demand in the medium term for more content and a large number of data centres, large and small, emerging outside the US.

“Content will get closer and closer to where it's used, and with more high-capacity undersea cables, like those from EllaLink. This will be just the beginning”, he points out. 

Map with the 426 undersea fibre-optic cables, through which 99% of internet traffic passes. Source: Telegeography.
 Google's 4 exclusive undersea fibre-optic cable routes. Source Telegeography

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