Analyzing the Internet Collapse

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When the Internet suddenly collapsed early last Wednesday across the Middle East and into India, it provided a stark reminder of how the Net's virtual spaces can still be held hostage to real-world events.

Almost simultaneously, two separate undersea fiber-optic cables connecting Europe with Egypt, and eventually with the Middle East and India, were cut. The precise cause remains unknown: experts initially said that ships' anchors, dragged by stormy weather across the sea floor, were the most likely culprit, but Egyptian authorities have said that no ships were in the region.

Whatever the cause, the effects were immediate. According to its telecommunications ministry, Egypt initially lost 70 percent of its connection to the outside Internet and 30 percent of service to its call-center industry, which depended less on the lines. Between 50 and 60 percent of India's Net outbound connectivity was similarly lost on the westbound route critical to the nation's burgeoning outsourcing industry.

"This [fiber path across the Mediterranean] is a choke point, which until recently was a very lightly trafficked route where there wasn't great need for cable," says Tim Strong, an analyst at telecommunications research firm Telegeography Research. "There are many new cables planned for the region, but as it happens, they're not in service yet."

Undersea cable damage is hardly rare--indeed, more than 50 repair operations were mounted in the Atlantic alone last year, according to marine cable repair company Global Marine Systems. But last week's breaks came at one of the world's bottlenecks, where Net traffic for whole regions is funneled along a single route.

This kind of damage is rarely such a deep concern in the United States and Europe. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are crisscrossed so completely with fast fiber networks that a break in one area typically has no significant effect. Net traffic simply uses one of many possible alternate destinations to reach its goal.

Not so with the route connecting Europe to Egypt, and from there to the Middle East. Today, just three major data cables stretch from Italy to Egypt and run down the Suez Canal, and from there to much of the Middle East. (A separate line connects Italy with Israel.) A serious cut here is immediately obvious across the region, and a double cut can be crippling.

The two damaged cables, both cut about five miles north of Alexandria, Egypt, are the most modern of the trio. One, owned by the U.K.-based Flag Telecom, a subsidiary of the India-based Reliance Group, stretches nearly 17,000 miles from Europe to China. The second cable, known as Sea-Me-We 4 and owned by a consortium of 15 different telecommunications companies, stretches from Spain to Singapore. Together, they have a capacity of close to 620 gigabits per second, according to Telegeography Research.

The one remaining cable traversing roughly this route is the older Sea-Me-We 3 cable, which has a capacity of 70 gigabits per second--considerably less than its newer rivals.

A third regional cable, also owned by Flag Telecom, was cut the morning of February 1 off the coast of Dubai, in an apparently unrelated event. This break has caused less trouble, since it is part of a Middle East loop that offers alternative routes for data traffic.

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