Toronto company lighting up the internet with underwater link

A view of the Toronto skyline.

Toronto company lighting up the internet with link across the bottom of Lake Ontario

Published Dec. 27, 2018 6:41 a.m. ET

A 58-kilometre cable laid this summer across the bottom of Lake Ontario – the first submarine fibre cable in the Great Lakes – could power all of Canada's internet demand with room to spare.

Cables running under lakes and oceans around the world are the "plumbing of the internet" but don't get the credit they deserve, said Crosslake Fibre CEO Mike Cunningham.

Related linkCrosslake Fibre

"Most people don't think about it or even know it exists. They think satellites are the primary way to transfer data but, in fact, about 99 per cent of international internet traffic is over submarine cables."

That's because fibre provides much more powerful bandwidth capabilities than satellite for lower cost, says Cunningham.

"Our cable could take all of Canada's internet traffic and then some," he said.

"We wouldn't have the internet we have today without submarine fibre. It really is the plumbing of the internet."

There were already cables linking southern Ontario to New York – laid across bridges and rail trestles crossing the Niagara River – but this is the first submarine fibre optic cable to be laid across Lake Ontario.

"The rationale of the project is that you need physically diverse, redundant routes so that there is not one single route of failure," said Cunningham.

IT International Telecom Canada Inc. equipment IT International Telecom Canada Inc. equipment

Crosslake's 96 fibre-pair cable was manufactured in Sweden and delivered in a specialized cable-laying vessel – the C.S. IT Intrepid – that made its way across the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The ship, owned by Quebec-based IT International Telecom Canada Inc., used a plow to dig a trench into which the cable was laid.

The 60-member crew took about two weeks in July to lay the cable, which was buried up to 142 metres below the surface of the lake. That's roughly the entire length of a Canadian football field.


By way of contrast, ocean cables are buried if they rest less than 1,500 metres below the surface. The risk of damage from marine activities such as fishing and anchoring virtually disappears deeper than that. 

The cable landed in the Toronto harbour near the downtown. On the American side, it landed at Wilson, N.Y. before making its way over land to Buffalo. The entire link is 131 kilometres.

Cunningham declined to say how much Crosslake and its U.S. investors have invested in the project aside from saying it's in the tens of millions of dollars.

The Toronto-based Crosslake Fibre is less than two years old and was "created for the purpose of developing niche submarine telecom projects in North America," said Cunningham. The crossing of Lake Ontario is the company's first project.

Crosslake's customers include telecoms, internet companies, and data centres that buy or lease access to the cable.

"Our model is to develop, own and operate niche submarine routes over relatively small distances, so we will be the long-term owner and operator. We will add new projects and routes over time."

Aboard the C.S. IT Intrepid Aboard the C.S. IT Intrepid

Cunningham says submarine cable projects take years of engineering, marine surveying, permitting and regulatory work. There are a couple of dozen regulators on both sides of the border involved in granting permission.

"It's a very complicated undertaking to get through the process even though it's a safe, low impact use. If you cut it, it spills light, not oil or electricity. Governments understand it's an important piece of infrastructure."

Related link: Submarine Cable Map

According to research firm TeleGraphy, which maintains a global map of submarine cables, there were 448 submarine cables in service around the world running more than 1.2 million kilometres in early 2018. The number constantly changes as new cables are added and older ones are decommissioned.

Some are short, such as the Crosslake route. Others are massive, such as the 20,000-kilometre Asia America Gateway cable running across the Pacific Ocean from Malaysia to southern California.

According to TeleGraphy: "Telecom carriers, mobile operators, multinational corporations, governments, content providers, and research institutions all rely on submarine cables to send data around the world. Ultimately, anyone accessing the internet, regardless of the device they are using, has the potential to use submarine cables."

Amid massive and rapidly growing demand for bandwidth, data consumption and connections to the cloud, the world's tech behemoths, including Google LLC, Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp., are investing in submarine cables to maximize their networks.

Another company plans to lay a second Lake Ontario cable next year between Toronto and Kingston, Ont.

Today's submarine cables use fibre-optic technology in which lasers on one end fire light at very high speed down hair-thin glass fibres to receptors at the other end of the cable. The glass fibres are protected by layers of copper, steel wire, plastic and nylon yarn. A typical cable is about the diameter of a garden hose, but the Crosslake cable is twice that. The shallow lake makes the cable much more vulnerable to damage from marine activities than those running across the ocean.

There are about 100 cable faults per year on average, according to TeleGraphy. But since most companies spread their networks' capacity over multiple cables in case one breaks, networks usually continue to run without interruption while repairs are made.

Accidents involving fishing vessels or ships dragging anchors account for two-thirds of all cable faults. Environmental factors such as earthquakes also contribute to damage and less commonly, underwater components can fail. Shark bites have also wreaked havoc on exceedingly rare occasions.