Beneath the sands of a north Cornwall beach runs a powerful internet cable connecting the UK and the US. But its precise location is a secret, and you won’t find it on any Ordnance Survey map
I’m standing on the internet. Six feet beneath me, buried in the soft sand of a north Cornwall beach popular with surfers, is one of the most important telecommunications cables in the country — the £250m Apollo North OALC-4 SPDA cable that provides the most powerful physical internet connection between the UK and the US. The only clue to its presence is a tall sign in the beach car park, which reads “Telephone cable”. It is not pointed towards the people sucking on ice-creams and waxing their surf boards; rather, it is directed at passing fishermeh, warning them not to catch their nets or anchors on this fibre-optic cable, which is just a fraction thicker than a garden hosepipe.
The 3,800 mile-long cable was laid across the Atlantic seabed in 2003 and runs from the Cornish coast to Fire Island just off New York’s Long Island. The last time you sent an email, did a Google search, watched a YouTube clip, or tweeted, there’s a very good chance that some of that data travelled at the speed of light through this very location.
Not surprisingly, the location of Apollo North needs to remain secret. Which is why its state-of-the-art “cabling station”, set back from the beach on farm land, is not to be found on an Ordnance Survey map; instead, the spot is marked only by the contours of an undulating field.
In reality, on the ground, there is a concrete road and a cryptic sign (“C.L. Site”) leading to a windowless facility the size of a small supermarket, shielded by trees in a shallow hollow. The building, part-owned by Cable and Wireless, marks the point where Apollo North, one of about half a dozen cables that straddle the ocean between north America and Cornwall, comes to the surface and connects to the UK’s land-based telecommunication network.
But how important is this one cable to the UK’s internet capacity? “People in the UK probably wouldn’t notice if it got severed,” says Stephan Beckert of internet analysts TeleGeography. “Connections between the US and western Europe are varied and robust. We call it a ‘self-healing ring’. But it surprises many people that the internet greatly relies on these cables. Virtually no internet traffic goes via satellite as it’s too expensive and the bandwidth available is minimal. However, certain regions still have bottlenecks and are vulnerable to breaks.”
Last year, large parts of the Arabian Gulf region were plunged into internet blackout when four submarine cables were severed within a week. When the first Transatlantic fibre-optic cables were laid in the late 80s, the high voltage of the electric cables laid alongside them attracted a feeding frenzy among sharks, resulting in a number of severed cables and electrocuted sharks. Protective sheathing was quickly added.
The Apollo North cable – the last in a long line of transatlantic cables to arrive in Cornwall, the nearest land point to north America – hasn’t suffered a break for four years. It is powerful enough to provide 320 gigabits a second of bandwidth capacity. This is roughly equal to 100,000 times the bandwidth available to the average UK home user.
But don’t tell anyone in this region of Cornwall – in a recent survey, a number of local rural pockets known as “notspots” were shown to have some of the slowest average internet speeds in the country.