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The Global Fiber Optic Network Explained

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The Global Fiber Optic Network Explained

As we scroll through Instagram or cue up another episode on Netflix, most of us give little thought to the hidden network of fiber optic cables that instantaneously shuttle information around the globe.

This extensive network of cables – which could stretch around the Equator 30 times – is the connective tissue that binds the internet, and thanks to our insatiable appetite for video streaming, it’s growing larger with every passing year.

Today’s video, by TED-Ed, explains how fiber optic cables work and introduces the next generation of cables that could drastically increase the speed of data transmission.

A Series of Tubes

The late Senator Ted Stevens drew laughter for describing the internet as a “series of tubes” in 2006, but as it turns out, most of the information moving around the world does, in fact, travel through a series of tubes. Undersea fiber optic tubes, to be exact.

The way this system functions is deceptively simple. Light, which is beamed into a fiber optic cable at a shallow angle, ricochets its way along the tube at close to light speed until being converted back into an electrical signal at its destination – generally a data center. To increase bandwidth further, some cables are able to carry multiple wavelengths concurrently.

Impressively, this simple method of bouncing light through a tube is what moves 99% of the world’s digital information.

The Glass Superhighway

Since the first undersea fiber optic cable, TAT-8, was constructed by a consortium of companies in 1988, the number of cables snaking across the ocean floor has risen dramatically. In fact, over 100 new cables will have been laid between 2016 and 2020, with a value of nearly $14 billion.

global fiber optic subsea cable projects

Increasing bandwidth requirements have transformed content providers from customers to cable owners. As a result, tech giants like Google and Facebook are taking a more active role in the expansion of the global fiber optic network. Google alone has at least five cable projects set for completion in 2019.

The Last Mile

Much like Amazon struggles with the “last mile” of deliveries, the transmission of digital information is much less efficient at the data center level, where servers are connected by traditional electric cables. These short-range cables are far less efficient than their fiber optic counterparts, losing half their running power as heat.

If this inefficient use of energy isn’t solved, internet-related activity could comprise a fifth of the world’s power consumption by 2030.

Thankfully, a related technology – integrated photonics – could keep the high-definition videos of the future streaming. Although the silicon wires used in integrated photonics do not guide light as effectively as fiber optics, the ultra-thin wires are far more compact. Photonic chips paired with burgeoning terahertz (THz) wireless communications could eventually form the backbone of a 6G network. Short-range THz signals would hitch a ride on silicon wires via tiny photonic chips scattered around population centers.

Before this efficient, high-capacity future is realized, researchers must first solve the puzzle of manufacturing photonic devices at scale. Once this method of data transmission hits the mainstream market, it could drastically alter the course of both computing and global energy consumption.

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Ranked: Biggest Fast Food Chains in America

Every year, fast food chains rake in north of $200 billion in revenue per year. Here are the biggest chains, ranked by revenue and number of locations.

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revenue fast food chains

Ranked: The Biggest Fast Food Chains in America

Fast food is a supersized business in America.

The average American spends as much as $1,200 every year on fast food — and roughly a quarter of the U.S. population eats three or more fast food meals per week.

Today’s unique infographic, via TitleMax, shows just how dominant the quick serve food industry is, and which brands are leading the pack in terms of revenue and store locations.

Billions Served

All of the biggest fast food chains now top $1 billion in sales annually. McDonald’s leads the pack with almost triple the sales of the number two chain, Starbucks.

Below are the top 30 fast food chains in the United States by revenue:

RankChainSales (U.S., 2017)# of Locations (U.S.)
1McDonald's$37.5B14,036
2Starbucks$13.2B13,930
3Subway$10.8B25,908
4Burger King$9.8B7,226
5Taco Bell$9.3B6,446
6Wendy's$9.3B5,769
7Dunkin' Donuts$5.9B12,538
8Chick-fil-A$9.0B2,225
9Domino's$5.9B5,587
10Pizza Hut$5.5B7,522
11Panera Bread$4.5B2,043
12Chipotle$4.5B2,371
13KFC$4.4B4,019
14Sonic Drive-In$4.4B3,593
15Dairy Queen$3.6B4,455
16Arby's$3.6B3,415
17Little Caesars$3.5B4,332
18Jack in the Box$3.5B2,251
19Popeye's$3.2B2,231
20Papa John's$3.1B3,314
21Panda Express$2.3B2,011
22Whataburger$2.3B821
23Hardee's$2.2B1,864
24Jimmy John's$2.1B2,755
25Zaxby's$2.1B890
26Carl's Jr.$1.5B1,156
27Five Guys$1.4B1,321
28Culver's$1.4B643
29Bojangles'$1.3B764
30Wingstop$1.1B1,027

In 2017, the top 30 fast food chains rang up $172 billion in sales at over 140,000 locations across the United States. When smaller chains are also included, annual industry revenue tops a whopping $200 billion.

Location, Location

Fast food can be a profitable business, but certain chains are runaway successes when sales-per-unit are considered. Chick-fil-A’s sales average out to $4.3 million per location — 53% higher than McDonald’s, which brings in $2.8 million of sales per location.

Subway, which is known for having a low franchise fee and no exclusive territory rights, has the lowest sales-per-unit in the top 30 ($419,792).

That said, no one can compare to Subway in terms of sheer volume. The chain has over 25,000 locations, making it not only the biggest fast food chain in the country, but the most common retailer overall (even beating out dollar stores). It’s possible that America has seen peak Subway though — the number of locations has been steadily dropping since 2011.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Starbucks. The Seattle-based coffee chain has been relentlessly expanding over the past decade.

Regional Preferences

Of course, not all fast food chains have the ubiquity of Subway and McDonald’s. Many of these brands have achieved impressive sales numbers in specific regions. Whether you’re loyal to Dunkin’ Donuts, Chick-fil-A, or In-N-Out may depend heavily on where you live.

dunkin donuts vs starbucks

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Will America’s next big fast food powerhouse come from an already-strong regional chain, or will it be the result of a new phenomenon, completely?

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Maps

Wired World: 35 Years of Submarine Cables in One Map

Watch the explosive growth of the global submarine cable network, and learn who’s funding the next generation of cables.

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submarine cable network

You could be reading this article from nearly anywhere in the world and there’s a good chance it loaded in mere seconds.

Long gone are the days when images would load pixel row by pixel row. Now, even high-quality video is instantly accessible from almost everywhere. How did the internet get so fast? Because it’s moving at the speed of light.

The Information Superhighway

The miracle of modern fiber optics can be traced to a single man, Narinder Singh Kapany. The young physicist was skeptical when his professors asserted that light ‘always travels in a straight line’. His explorations into the behavior of light eventually led to the creation of fiber optics—essentially, beaming light through a thin glass tube.

The next step to using fiber optics as a means of communication was lowering the cable’s attenuation rate. Throughout the 1960-70s, companies made gains in manufacturing, reducing the number of impurities and allowing light to cross great distances without a dramatic decrease in signal intensity.

By the mid-1980s, long distance fiber optic cables had finally reached the feasibility stage.

Crossing the Pond

The first intercontinental fiber optic cable was strung across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean in 1988. The cable—known as TAT-8*—was spearheaded by three companies; AT&T, France Télécom, and British Telecom. The cable was able to carry the equivalent of 40,000 telephone channels, a ten-fold increase over its galvanic predecessor, TAT-7.

Once the kinks of the new cable were worked out, the floodgates were open. During the course of the 1990s, many more cables hit the ocean floor. By the dawn of the new millennium, every populated continent on Earth was connected by fiber optic cables. The physical network of the internet was beginning to take shape.

As today’s video from ESRI shows, the early 2000s saw a boom in undersea cable development, reflecting the uptick in internet usage around globe. In 2001 alone, eight new cables connected North America and Europe.

From 2016-2020, over 100 new cables were laid with an estimated value of $14 billion. Now, even the most remote Polynesian islands have access to high-speed internet thanks to undersea cables.

*TAT-8 does not appear in the video above as it was retired in 2002.

The Shifting Nature of Cable Construction

Even though nearly every corner of the globe is now physically connected, the rate of cable construction is not slowing down.

This is due to the increasing capacity of new cables and our appetite for high-quality video content. New cables are so efficient that the majority of potential capacity along major cable routes will come from cables that are less than five years old.

Traditionally, a consortium of telecom companies or governments would fund cable construction, but tech companies are increasingly funding their own submarine cable networks.

tech company submarine cables

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Amazon, Microsoft and Google own close to 65% market share in cloud data storage, so it’s understandable that they’d want to control the physical means of transporting that data as well.

These three companies now own 63,605 miles of submarine cable. While laying cable is a costly endeavor, it’s necessary to meet surging demand—content providers’ share of data transmission skyrocketed from around 8% to nearly 40% over the past decade.

A Bright Future for Dark Fiber

At the same time, more aging cables will be taken offline. Even though signals are no longer traveling through this network of “dark fiber”, it’s still being put to productive use. It turns out that undersea telecom cables make a very effective seismic network, helping researchers study offshore earthquakes and the geologic structures on the ocean floor.

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