Remnant Infrastructure

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of electric cables being installed in the Golden Gate Bridge, October 1935; courtesy of the NPS].

In an interestingly archaeological story from the world of digital infrastructure, engineers who discovered “an unused fibre optic cable in Mongolia” were able, after putting it back into service, to “shave milliseconds” from a British firm’s internet traffic between London and Hong Kong. After all, there is “unused cabling infrastructure around the world,” like forgotten limbs awaiting future reactivation.

“We’re finding unused cables all time, everywhere [from] China and Russia to parts of Brazil,” a manager named Scott Ritchie explains to Information Age. He continues:

Quite often, when electricity lines are put down, there’s underlying optical fibre as well, because if you’re digging a hole you may as well whack as many services in there as possible. Some of these assets have been decommissioned or just forgotten about after companies go bankrupt. And sometimes when military objectives change, all of a sudden a bunch of infrastructure becomes available.

And there are backstage geopolitics involved: “We found a cable that went from the Russian border directly down through Mongolia, which cuts out the Northern part of China,” Ritchie explains. But, he asks, “Why would there be a secret substation on the Russian border? You would need to ask the Chinese government.'”

It’s as if closed-door diplomacy and international espionage together work to leave spatial and infrastructural fossils: embedded fragments of obsolete, redundant, or otherwise forgotten—perhaps only recently declassified—systems that no longer serve their original purpose.

So they’re resurrected for business and finance, requiring astute forensic detective work to uncover: “Discovering cables like these is a matter of technical analysis and local market intelligence. ‘We have a dedicated team of network engineers whose sole job is to improve the performance of our network,’ explains Ritchie. ‘A major element of that is discovering new network systems'”—where “new,” in this specific example, refers instead to the remote archaeological remains of cross-border espionage projects, old spies’ wires brought back online for private telecommunicative purpose.

Imagine a modern descendent of Piranesi with a summer job for AT&T, sent off alone with a truck, a tent, and some wire-testing equipment to explore abandoned villages in the mountains, on the hunt for internets he must single-handedly reawaken.

(Thanks to Tim Stevens for the link!)

5 thoughts on “Remnant Infrastructure”

  1. I don't have any information about the actual date of the photo that leads off the post, but the 1935 date is probably not accurate, given that the the bridge did not open for two more years. There is already traffic flowing, so this photo was probably taken some time in 1937 or later.

    Let's hear it for internet pedanticism!

  2. More pedantry: The NPS can say what it likes about the date, but this photo is clearly the 50s, maybe even early 60s. Just look at the flat rooflines and square corners on the passing cars.

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