Internet chaos shows system's weakness

The chaos in Asia’s internet service sparked by an undersea earthquake shows the region’s cable network is too fragile and overly reliant on connections to the United States, industry observers said on Thursday.

Millions of people across Asia were enduring a second day without full internet services after a 7,1-magnitude earthquake hit Taiwan late on Tuesday and disturbed several massive offshore submarine cables that link Asian countries with the US and beyond.

“Instead of being so dependent on connections to North America, Asia might want to spend some money on connecting to Europe,” said Ross Veitch, who set up Yahoo! South-east Asia and is now the chief products officer with travel search engine Bezurk.com.

China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and elsewhere all experienced disruptions to internet services after the quake hit.

Veitch said the internet was designed to be re-routed in the event of damage.

“In practice, so much traffic is funnelled through a small number of fibre-optic submarine cables. It’s a lot more fragile than most people think,” Veitch said from Perth, Australia, where service on his BlackBerry device was disrupted until Thursday morning.

“It’s pretty bad if more than 24 hours after the incident they haven’t been able to re-route traffic.”

Duncan Clark, chairperson of telecom consultancy BDA China, agreed there was “very little” connectivity between East Asia and Europe, while the bulk of the links were between the United States and Europe, and East Asia and the US.

“Obviously cables are inherently vulnerable to seismic activity and, quite often, dragged up by fisherman,” he said from Beijing.

“It does reveal our vulnerability.”

Disruption of undersea cable service should come as no surprise, said Sachin Mittal, a telecom analyst with DBS Vickers Securities in Singapore.

“I’m surprised at the magnitude of the disruption,” he said.

Clark said there was a need for more efficient routing of cables—which would help lessen the impact of problems in one area—as well as development of additional capacity.

“The question is, who is going to pay for it and what is the investment climate for financing these cables, which are expensive,” Clark said.

Javier Vicente Rufino, chief editor of inq7.net, the Philippines’ largest news website, said this week’s earthquake showed the vulnerability of his archipelago nation.

“We are dependent on a rather few number of cables,” said the editor whose servers are based in the US. “Are there alternate ways of accessing the internet? Because what it basically shows is our links to the outside are rather few.”

Clark said satellite transmission was one alternative, but it was more expensive and lacked the capacity of fibre optics.

He said the investment climate soured greatly at the beginning of this decade, while the cable system had recently found itself coping with additional pressure from the surge of interest in uploading to video-sharing and similar websites.

“There’s a strain, I think, on the network.”

He said that aside from the steep investments required to install cables—which often led to cooperative arrangements between telecommunications firms—complicated national sovereignty issues also needed to be addressed as the cables traversed international boundaries.

“Maybe there needs to be greater international co-operation on just clarifying the rules for this kind of stuff,” he said.

The quake has brought home how dependent the region has become on the Internet, and the need to improve the delivery mechanism, he and other observers said.

“We do have to pay more attention to making sure it’s ...
basically as reliable as electricity,” said Rufino. - AFP

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