TORONTO COM­PANY CARVES OUT UN­DER­WA­TER PATH FOR IN­TER­NET

Ma­jor cus­tomers get on board Cross­lake’s ul­tra-fast net­work

Calgary Herald - - FINANCIAL POST - EMILY JACK­SON

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.

PHO­TOS: TYLER AN­DER­SON/FILES

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.

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