Deep-Sea History for Alcatel-Lucent’s Submarine Cable Unit

Photograph by John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corporation via Getty Images

A series of tubes at Terremark’s Miami headquarters, where undersea Internet cables emerge from the Atlantic and connect to the rest of the country.

It’s time for investors to hit the history books. A 150 year-old business with more than 300,000 miles of cable laid at the bottom of the ocean may be about to change hands, as Alcatel-Lucent’s undersea telecommunications cable business attracts interest from potential buyers.

The unit, Alcatel’s last production site in France, has been manufacturing cables north of Paris and loading them on so-called cable layer ships for more than a century. In fact, the Franco-American company’s lineage has been involved in submarine cables since the first such link was established across the Atlantic back in the 1800s.

In August 1858, a signal –a message just under 100 words long– was emitted using the first undersea telegraph link, which went from Ireland to Newfoundland, Canada using 17,000 miles of cable to cover a 2000-mile distance. The message arrived… 16 hours later! The 1 bit-per-second capacity copper cable, a technological feat for its time, thus allowed Queen Victoria and U.S. President James Buchanan to communicate.

That piece of history still lies in deep-sea waters at the bottom of the ocean, next to newer generations of fiber-optics cables which can carry data at 3.8 terabits-per-second — 3.8 trillion times the original speed.

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