How Do We Send Data Around the World?

By: Lacey Fields, Technician I, Greater Columbus Convention Center

You are exhibiting at a booth in New York City at the largest convention of the year; it’s a huge opportunity to gain new business for your company. Then, the Exhibit Hall doors open to the public and its show-time. There’s just one problem; you forgot to order Internet from the facility’s exclusive provider. No matter. You link your computer to your mobile hotspot. As you watch the spinning icon on your screen, waiting for the video demonstration of your product to load from your company’s server in London; people continue to walk past your booth. It turns out your mobile carrier does not have a strong connection inside the steel, concrete-encased convention center. In the convention industry, this lag time can make or break the success of an event.

Internet connectivity issues create palpable frustrations among both attendees and event organizers alike but, a fundamental understanding of how internet data transmission works is extremely beneficial in preventing some of this frustration.

So, how does data travel across the Internet? Simply put, it travels via copper cabling, wireless networks, or fiber optic cable; either buried in the ground, suspended, or broadcast through the air. International transmission, however, gets a bit more complicated. Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of each method of transferring data from London to New York.

Let’s start with copper cabling (also referred to as Ethernet). Data travels across Ethernet cabling for only 328 feet (100 Meters) before it needs an electronically powered repeater, known as a switch, to boost the signal. You probably won’t be connecting an Ethernet cable to your smartphone any time soon. But, for short-distance data transfers, it’s usually worth running Ethernet cables to the devices that matter, such as PCs, backup devices, and set-top boxes. However, the direct distance from New York City to London is 3,470 miles requiring over 55,000 switches spanning that distance to boost a signal, ensuring all the data arrives intact. Transmitting data across the Atlantic Ocean this way is not feasible. The cost of equipment and the logistics of connecting and supplying some form of electricity to each device would be enormous.

The next option is data transmission via satellite, which seems like a good idea (In theory). The reality is that it’s not practical to send a majority of the world’s internet traffic this way. The primary reason is due to lag time, also known as latency. Most satellites used for Internet transmission are approximately 22,236 miles above sea level. Radio waves that transmit through the air, to and from a satellite, travel at nearly the speed of light. Data traveling at the speed of light sounds great, but the latency involved is significant compared to other forms of data transfers when you consider that time in the networking world revolves around milliseconds (1/1,000th of a second). The only reason you may want to use satellite internet is if you live in an area where other internet options like cable or DSL aren’t available.

That leaves the final option: fiber-optic cable. Fiber has much greater capabilities in the speed and distance of data transmission between switches than that of copper wiring, and much lower latency than that of satellite. The average round-trip latency time from NYC to London utilizing only fiber is 56 milliseconds. There are an estimated 378 submarine fiber-optic cables in service all over the world, which make up the “backbone” of the Internet, covering a total distance of approximately 700,000 miles on the seafloor. These numbers are continually changing as new technology is developed, faster cables enter service, and older cables decommissioned.

So, back to your booth in NYC. Before you use your mobile hotspot, consider instead talking with your facility’s exclusive service provider to place an order through them. Certified technicians will be able to provide you with the best internet connection options necessary for your data transfer needs. If you prefer to keep your device wireless and order the readily available onsite wireless services, the latency will be a significant improvement over your mobile or satellite hotspot. The devices in your booth are much closer to wireless access points located within the facility than to the cellular tower or satellite outside the building.

Because in the convention industry timing can be everything.