Internet cable cuts: More than accidents?


Mike Wendland
The Detroit Free Press
February 6, 2008

There’s a growing uneasiness in the global Internet community over a series of crippling Internet blackouts overseas that has resulted from four cuts and disruptions to underwater cables over the past week. While no evidence of sabotage has been forthcoming, the four breaks seem to many observers to stretch the bounds of coincidence.

The cable breaks have been causing a growing buzz on tech blogs and drawing attention from conspiracy theorists, who suspect everything from information warfare to terrorism to sabotage by the United States to take out Internet connections to Iran, whose connectivity indeed has been pretty much blacked out for most of the past week.

The breaks have been in the Middle East and Asia and have caused widespread disruptions, especially in India. They’ve had little to no effect in the United States, except for users trying to communicate with people in the affected areas. Most of the huge tech firms in India that do outsourced programming and data entry for U.S. and European insurance, banking and medical companies have not been seriously disrupted because they have used alternate land- or satellite-based private connections.

Dragging ship anchors caused by rough waters in the eastern Mediterranean were the initial suspicion, but Egyptian authorities repairing some of the breaks today said they have reviewed onshore cameras of the cable locations and could see no maritime traffic in the area when the breaks occurred.

Two of the severed lines are owned by the India-based FLAG company that has assembled a team of 30, including telecommunication engineers and Egyptian government and Navy officials. They’re working on a repair ship at the FLAG Europe-Asia site off the coastal city of Alexandria.

Those breaks have affected more than 85 million Internet users in India, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Egyptian officials say those breaks may not be fixed until the weekend. Meanwhile, a crew of 50 off the coast of Dubai says it will take them about a week to repair a damaged fiber optic.

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The fourth cable linked Qatar and the United Arab Emirates and went out Monday. Officials are unsure what happened, although some reports say there was damage to the power supply system that “lights up” the cable and sends the data streams through the hair-thin strands of glass-like optical fibers. That’s expected to take several days to repair.

Despite all the conspiracy speculation, such breaks are not without precedence. In December 2006, seven of the eight Internet cables connected to Taiwan were damaged by an earthquake. Internet communications in much of Asia were disrupted for weeks.

Still, with so much of the globe dependent on Internet connectivity, the breaks are focusing attention on the vulnerability of the oceanic network that handles 95% of the world’s Internet and telephone traffic. Colonel R.S. Parihar, the secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of India told the International Herald Tribune that the incidents have been a wake-up call to the global telecommunications industry.

“These are owned by private operators, and there are no governments or armies protecting these cables,” he said.


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