Internet in the Galápagos

Located some thousand kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands is an oasis where one may connect with nature. The trade-off? You can’t really connect to the internet. One of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites, the “living laboratory” of evolution receives a great deal of international attention for its conservation and sustainability efforts. Making any major change to the environment requires a detailed environmental impact study, which in itself requires a great deal of funding and time, sometimes years. However, the speed at which the internet moved from a niche technology to a mass utility surpassed the Galápagos’ ability to enact an implementation on par with evolving industry speeds and standards.

The internet is not a singular entity, rather, it is a term used to describe a series of connections between billions of devices worldwide. At 575 miles away from the nearest land mass, the Galápagos evades the most powerful modes of connectivity, namely submarine communications cables, which transmit ninety-nine percent of all international data. Submarine cables consist of a series of fiber optic cables coated in variety of layers to protect the precious cables at its center, which are capable of transmitting data at up to 99.7% the speed of light.

While in the Galápagos with the Dean’s Honor Society in January, our naturalist, Fernando, took me to the central office in the Galápagos for the state run telecommunications provider, CNT. There I had the privilege of meeting Silvana Criollo, a CNT employee, to discuss the approach the Galápagos had taken to internet connectivity. Ms. Criollo said that submarine cables were explored, an environmental impact study may have been cut short due to lack of funding. She also said there were no profits to be had by laying submarine cables, as it was a costly process that would be undertaken by the state solely as a service to the residents of the Galápagos. In the absence of submarine cables, all data connections to the archipelago are achieved via satellite communications.

At 11,611 miles, Perth, Australia, is the furthest city in distance from New York. There are no direct flights from New York to Perth, or vice-versa. With one stop, the fastest possible itinerary is just over twenty-four hours. Traveling at the speed of light, your trip would take approximately 0.0623 seconds. By contrast, I determined by pinging an IP address in Perth with a decent internet connection it takes your data approximately 0.282-0.4 seconds to make the round trip, not bad at all. But data exchange between the Galápagos Islands and New York—which are just three thousand miles apart, less than a third of the distance to Perth—takes exponentially longer, and internet on the Galápagos Islands is painfully slow. The geostationary satellites which provide the Galápagos with internet access orbit approximately 22,300 miles above Earth.

As it turns out, fiber optic and satellite technology were both developed in the 1960s. However, transmitting data through space takes substantially longer due to latency and bit loss. In other words due to the sheer distance, mode of transmission and varying meteorological factors that have the potential to disrupt the transmission, requiring pieces of a data to be sent multiple times in a given transmission, sending data via satellite communications takes substantially longer.

Yet despite these quite literal astronomical hurdles, the inhabitants of the islands, the Galapageños, are aware of Kim Kardashian’s internet-breaking derriere, McDonalds, and have deferred access to current Top 40 music. The embedded interactive Google map highlights some of the telecommunications (and energy) infrastructure I observed while on the islands.