TORONTO COMPANY CARVES OUT UNDERWATER PATH FOR INTERNET
Major customers get on board Crosslake’s ultra-fast network
TORONTO It’s not easy to bury a cable in the bed of Lake Ontario with 48-kilometre-per-hour winds rocking the boat, but that’s what Crosslake Fibre Inc. had to deal with earlier this year on the final leg of its journey to build an ultrafast, underwater route for Canadian internet traffic.
The project, first announced by the Toronto-based company in spring 2017, began in earnest in early July when crews loaded 65 kilometres of double-armoured fibre-optic cables onto a vessel docked in Sweden.
Seven weeks later, after sailing through Germany’s Kiel Canal and the English Channel, across the Atlantic Ocean to Halifax, and then through the locks in Montreal down the St. Lawrence Seaway to Lake Ontario, the C.S. IT Intrepid and its 60 crew members arrived in Toronto as the first ocean-going vessel to bury a submarine fibreoptic cable in the Great Lakes.
Consumers are certainly aware when local telecoms dig up streets to connect their homes, but they tend to be less conscious of the backbone infrastructure that makes the global internet possible — a network of nearly 450 active submarine cables stretching over 1.2 million kilometres, according to research firm TeleGeography.
Those cables carry 99 per cent of all communications traffic, Crosslake chief executive Mike Cunningham said at a late-August event to celebrate the cable’s landing at an undisclosed location a few kilometres from the Port of Toronto near the downtown core.
“Most people don’t understand it, but subsea cables really are the plumbing of the internet,” he said.
Crosslake funded the project in part through individual investors and private-equity firm Tiger Infrastructure Partners. It will sell access to its cable — known as “dark fibre” until someone turns it on — to players that will activate them to establish fast connections including telecommunications companies, social-media giants and data centres seeking another pathway for Canada’s internet traffic as data consumption skyrockets.
Journalists and investors got a rare look at the cables — and the work it takes to lay them — on a tour of the Intrepid, owned by Montreal-based International Telecom, which specializes in surveying, installing and repairing submarine cable systems.
This particular cable is buried as deep as 142 metres below the water’s surface and connects Canada’s largest city to the shores of Wilson, N.Y., from where it continues over land to Buffalo.
Each cable contains 96 pairs of glass filament strands, with each of the 192 individual strands measuring about one human hair in diameter. The cable is insulated by polyurethane and other materials.
Most submarine cables have the diameter of a garden hose, but the Crosslake cable had additional layers of yellow tubing, giving it a two-inch diameter, because Lake Ontario is shallow compared to an ocean, and that exposes the cable to a higher risk of damage from fishing, ship anchors or other human activities.
If a cable does break, it can be pulled onto a ship for repairs, which can take two weeks for cables at depths of seven kilometres or two days for shallower projects such as Crosslake, the ship’s chief officer Geoffrey Dunlop explained on the tour.
Then there’s the ship. Built in the United Kingdom in 1989, the Intrepid was converted to do installations after International Telecom bought it in 2004. It built a new deck on the back with a cable burial plow, an A-frame and enough room for big spools of cable.
To lay cable on a seabed, it is first unspooled and sent along tire rollers that load it into a 17-tonne plow on the stern. The A-frame is lowered from the back of the ship in order to lower the plow to the bottom. At this point, the crew “walks” the ship forward to get the appropriate tension on the wires towing the plow.
As the plow digs a trench, a piece of equipment pushes the cable down so it stays put until the bottom of the sea bed — or lake bed in this case — folds in on itself and covers the cable.
It’s accurate within one metre of the intended path thanks to a dynamic positioning computer on the bridge.
For projects that require even more accuracy, the ship carries a submarine robot. The remotely operated underwater device looks like a yellow mini-tank and is attached to the vessel by an “umbilical cord” that allows it to work at depths of more than 1,000 metres.
Once the ship gets close to land, a team of divers and support vessels finish the job by pulling the cable ashore manually.
It’s easier to lay a cable on Lake Ontario’s bed than the ocean floor, but the Crosslake project came with its own set of challenges given the unique nature of operating in fresh water with equipment calibrated to work in salt water.
The different density was tricky for some equipment such as the hydro acoustic positioning beacons and the robot, Fred Hamilton, Intrepid’s captain, said at the landing event.
“We forgot to ballast (the robot) for fresh water, so when we put it in the water, it sank instead of floating like it should,” he said. “We figured it out.”
Nor had the ship been through the locks before. Careful navigation proved necessary as it didn’t have fenders that would have allowed it to bump into the concrete walls.
All told, it took a lot of work to lay down the 65-kilometre cable that will carry internet traffic in an area where there is already a connection between Canada and the U.S. in the form of three main cables on bridges and rail paths over the Niagara River.
But Crosslake and its supporters argue the submarine cable is needed for a more resilient network.
“It’s going to provide much needed physical route diversity away from the existing Niagara River bridges,” Oakville MPP Stephen Crawford said at the event. “It’s a new piece of internet infrastructure that will serve Canada for the next few decades. It’s incredible the amount of bandwidth on here.”
As it stands, about three-quarters of Canada’s telecommunications traffic crosses the Niagara River, said Crosslake director Doug Cunningham, who is Mike’s father. The new cable will give that traffic another route, and a faster one to boot.
He said “virtually all” carriers, social-media players and datacentre operators want diverse routes for their internet traffic in case something goes amiss with an existing cable. For example, last summer, much of Atlantic Canada went dark for four hours after construction and logging crews accidentally cut some cables.
Crosslake said it has signed on major customers for indefeasible rights of usage — meaning the contract cannot be cancelled, nullified or overturned — for up to 25 years, but would not reveal their names. Nor would it say how much it cost to build the cable, although Mike Cunningham previously estimated “multiple tens of millions” of dollars.
Regardless, Crosslake is not alone in building underwater infrastructure. Tech giants Google LLC, Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are investing in submarine cables of their own to optimize their network performance.
But the last round of major submarine cable investment happened during the dot-com boom, the younger Cunningham said. It’s still functional, but it has capacity limitations that Crosslake hopes to address.
“It’s not a sexy business, but you make a phone call, you text, you go on Facebook, you watch Netflix, all of that is really due to the plumbing of the internet,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we’re creating here.”
It’s not a sexy business, but you make a phone call, you text, you go on Facebook, you watch Netflix, all of that is really due to the plumbing of the internet.
Crosslake CEO Mike Cunningham boards the C.S. IT Intrepid, the first ocean-going vessel to bury a submarine fibre-optic cable in the Great Lakes.
Mike Cunningham, CEO of Toronto-based Crosslake, speaks during a ceremony in August in front of C.S. IT Intrepid. The company was celebrating the fibre-optic cable’s landing a few kilometres from the Port of Toronto.