Our Internet age didn't just happen; it required thousands of miles of cables crisscrossing the ocean like veins and arteries (or, as Neal Stephenson put it years ago in Wired, turning the Earth into a computer motherboard). After a huge boom-and-bust cycle in the 1990s, the world's telecommunications cables are full, so once again ships are braving the oceans to lay new batches of the mammoth fiber optic wires that undergird the modern economy and allow you to order all sorts of useless stuff. Author Andrew Blum, who has a new book on the subject (Tubes), offers an overview in the Wall Street Journal.
Brazil-to-Angola; Virginia Beach-to-San Sebastian, Spain; and New York-to-London (of course) are three of the new cables going in. Undersea cables pass through power repeaters every 50 miles on their immense journeys, ending at a "beach manhole" where the cable is secured to the land. Near the manhole is a landing station, responsible for sending and receiving the signals. And the cables, signals, and equipment are all run in a complicated cross-owned and -leased network of companies. It's all about capacity and speed, as the latest New York-London route is being carefully planned to shave 310 miles off the distance—and save high-speed traders a precious 5.2 milliseconds.