Google Goes Under the Sea

Metaphors of insubstantiality define the digital economy, where reality is virtual and computing power increasingly comes from a cloud, but the players behind the scenes are investing heavily in some very tangible things. The latest example: Google’s share in an undersea telecommunications cable.

The $300 million Unity cable will run beneath the Pacific Ocean between the United States and Japan. Google is partnering with five telecoms–Bharti Airtel, Global Transit, KDDI, Pacnet and SingTel–to build it. The cable is one of four new trans-Pacific projects that will more than double available capacity beneath our largest ocean in the future, making predictions of traffic jams at the Internet’s core less likely to come true.

Google is the first non-telecommunications company to buy its own piece of an undersea cable, and Alan Mauldin, research director of the firm TeleGeography, says he doesn’t expect other non-telecoms to follow suit anytime soon. But Google’s immersion in the physical world is anything but a one-off: The search giant has purchased dark fiber-optic capacity and has made enormous investments in data centers to support its Internet ambitions.

Its rivals also are building huge facilities to house the machines that power their service offerings. That includes Amazon, which in the days of the dot-com bubble taught the world that e-commerce required real-world logistics, and Microsoft, which is planning a data center complex in Siberia. The implications of this activity would be familiar to any company from the era of the Industrial Revolution: construction costs, fuel costs, physical security, access to water sources and so on.

Consumers of Internet services can fancy themselves as connoisseurs of the incorporeal, but for the providers, the business retains some very concrete elements.

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