>> When studying political economy of media and communication, it is crucial to ask “How did we get to where we are today?” and “Where are we going next?” These two questions are also really central to the whole SMC project as we are analyzing the impact of digitalization as well as the commercialization within this structure.
This essay, written in October, 2014 for my second year course “Globalization and Media” instructed by Dr. Lewis Kaye, summarized the development of submarine cables technology and its impact on the globalization process. A great emphasis in this essay is also the shift of public and private power relations within the telecommunication history.
Network History Report
Globalization and Submarine Telecommunication Cables
A large proportion of documentary resources regarding the development of international submarine cable system is highly focused on the technical aspect of this topic. Nonetheless, as a vital means of telecommunication for nearly 165 years, the submarine cable system has undoubtedly reflected and shaped the process of globalization not only in the form of information transmission but also in terms of the global economic trend. In this short report, besides discussing the development of submarine cable and telecommunication technology chronologically, I will also point out the simultaneous steps of globalization, particularly in the political economic aspect, that are directly or indirectly related to this network technology.
The development of submarine cable system is often divided into three phases: The telegraph era with early submarine cables (1850-1950), the telephone era with coaxial cables (1950-1986), and the optical fiber era (1986- present) (Chesnoy, 2002). In the beginning of the first era, the Brett brothers from England proposed the idea of extending the telecommunication system by laying undersea telegraphy cables in the English Channel. A main support to this groundbreaking idea was the discovery of the new durable insulating material, gutta-percha, a rigid latex found in the Malaya Peninsula (Barnes, 1977). Despite the failure of their attempt in 1850 and the two short-lived operation of cross-Atlantic cables in 1858 and 1859 (Finn & Yang, 2009), increasing investigation and support from the governments led to the accomplishment in 1866 of the first reliable Transatlantic telegraph cable successfully laid and operated. Since then, installation of long distance and cross continent submarine cables has proliferated and so has the setups of private and public telecommunication carriers (Barnes, 1997). This is an era in which private and public carriers coexisted. After the 1860s, from the expansion of Brett brothers’ initial company, the Submarine Telegraph Company, the later founded Atlantic Telegraph Co. and other private carriers, we can notice that the communication industry was slowly moving from governmental monopoly toward privatization(Chesnoy, 2002). However, on the other hand, some public sectors and governments were aware of this transformation and preferred saving the control power in public system. In April, 1868, all private networks in the United Kingdom were nationalized (Chesnoy, 2002) and in 1928 the government further integrated Britain’s ocean telegraph cables into United Kingdom Post Office, and oversea radio services sectors into Cable and Wireless Limited (Barnes, 1977).
In the second era, telephone replaced telegraph with the invention and manipulation of new coaxial cable system and submerged repeaters (Barnes, 1997). Submerged repeaters, also known as the submerged amplifier, were used to amplify voice signals and therefore complete vocal transmission through long distance. This idea has long existed but wasn’t successfully put into practice until the invention of new coaxial system in the 1950s. To put it simply, the coaxial system made it possible to contain amplifiers in cables providing water-tight casing without blocking transmission path (Burnett, Beckman, & Davenport, 2013). Different from the market phenomenon in the last era, as complexity of transmission process as well as the required technologies, infrastructure, and equipment multiplied during the telephone era, telephone companies mostly started with government-owned institutions, therefore domestic monopoly, and were often shared between nations by purchasing and operating shared cables (Burnett, Beckman, & Davenport, 2013). However, not long after the first transatlantic submarine telephone cables, the TAT-1 cables that connected North America and England, was operated by American company AT&T in 1956, a great competitor appear in the market of telecommunication – the satellite system. With higher circuits carrying capacity and much lower cost in maintenance and operation, telecommunication satellite system undeniably gave submarine cable a hard hit. Nonetheless, following the privatization of telephone companies in the mid- twentieth century, submarine cables were re-embraced by these private carriers as satellite capacity can only be leased but not owned privately (Malecki & Wei, 2009).
The invention of fiber optics used in submarine cables is also a great reason of its revival. In 1966, Dr. Charles Kao and Dr. George Hockham discovered that glass fiber can drastically increase the cable capacity and deal with as much as ten times the traffic per fiber in satellite system can transfer (Chesnoy, 2002). Nowadays, nearly 97 percent of the international telecommunication traffic is transmitted through the submarine cable system (Burnett, Beckman, & Davenport, 2013). As it lowers the price and significantly speeds up the process of information transmission, fiber optic systems have also been installed in areas that were previously avoided or deemed as non-cost-effective. Moreover, its services and capacity are no longer confined to vocal message transmission but also include daily business data report, military surveillance, internet access, and so on (Bannon & Burnett, 2013). All these effects directly and indirectly stimulate the process of globalization and global economic exchanges.
A noticeable change in this era appears to be the rise of the importance of developing countries. While the main actors in previous eras were mostly former imperial power or post-colonial liberalists that favour private interests and control global economic system, developing countries with rapid economic growth and large population, such as China and India, have gained dominant position in global telecommunication markets after network services became increasingly accessible and highly demanded in these countries (Malecki & Wei, 2009).
To sum up, the development of international submarine cable system reflects parts of the process of globalization and the distribution of power. However, with every connection it builds, this network is also weaving new patterns of regime, particularly in the political economic aspect. We must realize that what submarine cables transmit is not only mediated messages but also business opportunities and the rising of different regions, population groups, and market trends in the global system.
Bannon, R., & Burnett, D. (2005). Submarine cable infrastructure defense against terrorists. Sea Technology, 46(7), 19-21,23-24. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/198582545?accountid=14771
Barnes, C. C. (1977). Submarine telecommunication and power cables. Stevenage, Eng: P. Peregrinus, on behalf of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.
Burnett, D., Beckman, R., & Davenport, T. (Eds.). (2013). Submarine cables: The handbook of law and policy. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff.
Chesnoy, J. (2002). Undersea fiber communication systems. Amsterdam: Academic Press.
Finn, B. S., & Yang, D. (2009). Communications under the seas: The evolving cable network and its implications. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Malecki, E. J., & Wei, H. (2009). A wired world: The evolving geography of submarine cables and the shift to asia. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 99(2), 360-382. doi:10.1080/00045600802686216