Analyzing the Internet Collapse

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The cause of the cuts in the two main broken cables remains somewhat mysterious. A spokesman for Flag Telecom said on Monday that the company would not speculate on the causes until the broken line has been examined. However, Egyptian telecommunications officials said on Sunday that no ships had crossed the site of the breaks in the 12 hours before or after the incidents on Wednesday. The site is also a "restricted area," further lessening the chances of a ship's responsibility, the ministry said.

The unexpected collapse in service forced Internet providers across the region to scramble for alternative connections, most using backup bandwidth sources under contract for just such an emergency. Many ISPs began switching traffic east instead of west. Data from India to Europe might thus first pass through East Asia, across the Pacific, through the United States, and across the Atlantic Ocean before reaching its destination. While slowing traffic, in some cases significantly, this at least allowed data to get through.

According to ISP Association of India secretary R. S. Perhar, service providers in his country adapted to the cuts relatively quickly. Traffic from business customers was given a top priority on networks, with consumer traffic taking second place. Three of the country's largest service providers weren't affected at all, since they weren't buying bandwidth from the Flag or Sea-Me-We 4 cables, he says.

Many other Indian companies had diversified their network connections following December 2006, when an earthquake off the coast of Taiwan severed seven major undersea cables that served India as well as East Asia. But some providers who had not acted as quickly found themselves cut off entirely, Perhar says.

"Most have done good network planning and made sure they get bandwidth from several service providers," he says. "But there are people who did not have redundancy in their networks."

Outsourcing companies also found themselves facing potential disruption. With so much outsourced work now being performed in India or elsewhere in the region, companies in the United States and Europe are increasingly dependent on these broken lines for their everyday business. But like the ISPs, the biggest outsourcing companies said that they relied on redundant connections to ensure the flow of data.

"We have planned for circumstances like these," says Nathan Linkon, a spokesman for Infosys, a large Bangalore-based outsourcing company. "We have diversity in path and providers, and we haven't lost any connectivity to our offices or customers."

With just two cables at issue, restoring service is expected to go more smoothly than did the 49-day process required after the Taiwan earthquake. Flag Telecom has told its customers that a repair ship that launched from Catania, Italy, will arrive and begin work today. The company said that Egyptian authorities are "expediting the permits" so that work can begin as soon as the ship arrives.

These repair operations have become fairly routine, with marine service companies on call around the world to launch a ship as quickly as possible when a nearby cable has been torn by a ship's anchor or fishing net, or, more unusually, by a natural event such as an earthquake.

A repair ship will typically take several days to reach the site of a break, says Stephen Scott, commercial manager for the U.K.-based Global Marine Systems, which is not involved in fixing this week's break.

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