New Underwater Fiber-Optic Link Planned for Pacific

Verizon announced it has signed agreements with various Asian firms, including China Telecom, to build an undersea communications cable across the Pacific. The advanced cable will greatly increase the amount of voice and data traffic that can cross the Pacific.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As Chinese and U.S. officials talk, American corporations keep right on doing business in China, and the phone company Verizon has announced plans to build a huge telephone and data link between the United States and China.

In an age of wireless Internet and satellite communications, this might seem a little bit odd, but the companies are using a physical cable, and this one has 60 times the capacity of the old ones. NPR's Adam Davidson reports.

ADAM DAVIDSON: It's been a rough couple of decades for the transoceanic cable industry, according to Joe Nordguard(ph). He was on the Bell lab team, laying the very first oceanic fiber optic cable in the early 1980s. The industry was new and people like Nordguard had to solve all sorts of unexpected problems. They came up with an underwater cable design.

Mr. JOE NORDGUARD (Bell): But little did the industry know that that design attracted a particular species of shark.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Wait, the cable attracted the sharks?

Mr. NORDGUARD: There was an electromagnetic field given off by the cable that apparently drove the sharks a little into a feeding frenzy.

Mr. DAVIDSON: He says they never could find out if the sharks that bit the cable died or just suffered a vicious shock. Eventually engineers solved the shark problem - the put a metal mesh around the plastic cable, and they solved a host of other technical challenges. By the mid-1980s transoceanic fiber optic cable became the cheapest and fastest method to send data from one continent to another.

Even today, with all the new wireless technologies, transoceanic cable is still cheaper, faster and more reliable than any other method.

Mr. NORDGUARD: Oh yes, absolutely, yeah. In fact, most of the world's traffic right now is over these massive cable systems that span the planet. Some of them literally traverse the entire planet.

Mr. DAVIDSON: But all that traffic goes through just roughly 65 cables. Now Verizon is adding this new, really big one between Oregon and China's coast. It'll cost $500 million and is a joint project with five Asian phone companies. AT&T also has transpacific cable plans.

This little boom is putting plain old phone companies, which until very recently were seen as dinosaurs, into the heart of global business.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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