Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Fibre optic cable

For as long as we've lived on this island (seven years now, amazingly enough!), the talk has always been about the long awaited fibre optic cable to bring us faster broadband.  For a while, it's been promised for "fourth quarter 2013" but I've always said I'll believe it when I see a big ship with a big roll of cable on the back and not a moment before.

Photocredit shipspotting.com
Well I can tell you that such a ship - the MV IT Interceptor (pictured above) - is steaming towards the Azores as I type this. Below is the latest image from Marinetraffic.com showing her course (light blue line coming in from the top) towards Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel.


I gather that, from Ponta Delgada, the IT Interceptor will then steam west to Faial (the nearest island to Flores already linked by fibre optic) from where, on Friday (13 September), it will begin to lay the cable.

Apparently, a fibre optic cable is thinner than a human hair. Presumably this means it must be frightfully easy to get it tangled up. I'm thinking of bitter experience when I used to troll a fishing line out behind a boat as a child and if one of the spinner things got snagged and didn't spin, then the whole thing was in a bugger's muddle before you could say "terabyte of data". I expect the crew of the IT Interceptor will have got their spinner things properly greased up before they set off from Faial but I hope they don't fall into the same trap the crew of the Great Eastern did.


The GE was an overly large steamship built by the Victorian engineer Brunel which was ahead of its time in terms of mass transport. After disappointments too numerous to mention (pictured above - imagine today mischievous press coverage of an A380 running into severe turbulence on its maiden flight), the GE was pensioned off to the alternative use of laying telegraph cables across the Atlantic because it was the only ship at the time big enough to carry such huge rolls of cable. These were in the days when cables were as thick as tree trunks except not as flexible:-


Anyway, when they were unrolling the cable off the back of the Great Eastern, somewhere in the vicinity of Faial as I recall, they only went and dropped the end of the fucking thing into the sea, 3,000 miles out from Land's End or wherever they'd set off from!

Nowadays, we have risk assessment (to tell you not to do things) and loss adjusters (to tell risk assessors not to do things). In previous generations, you had officers and gentlemen who, having embarked on something appallingly dangerous, didn't give up without a fight. The greatest example of this was Captain Bligh (Tony Hopkins) of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. As you'll recall, his mission was to get bread fruit from Tahiti and take it to the West Indies. But to make it more of a challenge, he decided to go via Cape Horn, failed in that so went the other way to Tahiti instead, suffered a mutiny by Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson), navigated the rowing boat he was chucked in to all the way to Australia, got back to Britain where he was court-martialled (Larry Olivier, Edward Fox). Upon being acquitted, what do you think he did next? If it had been me, I wouldn't have set foot on another boat as long as I lived. But Bligh only set off to Tahiti again and took the bread fruit to the Caribbean!

But I digress, where was I? Oh yes, dropping the end of the cable off the back of the Great Eastern into the mid-Atlantic. I wouldn't reach in up to my elbow to get my car keys back but Captain What'sname of the GE decided to go fishing for the cable 20,000 leagues under the sea with nothing so much as a grappling iron. And he found it, pulled it back on board, coupled it up to the next length and next stop Long Island! Put that in your Global Positioning System and smoke it! I know about this because I've got a book which by coincidence I bought at Heathrow on the way out to the Azores on holiday for the first ever time in Jan 2004. Little did I know so much of the action would take place off the coast of my destination then and have such a resonance for where I live now.


Aye, well, there you go, as we Scots say. I trust the crew of the IT Interceptor will not have any such alarms and excursions. Although I do have a bit of a mental image of them arriving off the coast of Flores and someone loud hails ashore "OK, we've got it here, where do we plug it in?" And a harrassed Portugal Telecom official calls back "What do you mean "where do we plug it in"? I thought you were dealing with that ...".  

That's the sort of thing that happens here, I kid you not. Vamos ver as we Portuguese say but there's another little ill omen apart from the fact laying the cable is scheduled to start next Friday, the 13th. The IT Interceptor's previous name was Atlantida which was also the name of the ill-fated car ferry ordered by the Azores Government in 2007 from the Portuguese Government but never taken delivery of because it allegedly didn't come up to contract specifications. The ensuing acrimony is an ongoing saga to this day too tedious to recount (you think the Scotland v UK posturing is petty?) but see here.

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