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Quake highlights fragility of telecoms network

A few seconds of undersea quaking was all it took to cause massive telecommunications disruptions throughout tech-savvy Asia, where Internet services slowed or stopped, phone lines went dead and financial transactions ground to a halt.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A few seconds of undersea quaking was all it took to cause massive telecommunications disruptions throughout tech-savvy Asia, where Internet services slowed or stopped, phone lines went dead and financial transactions ground to a halt.

Analysts and industry insiders said the service disruption — caused by the rupture of two undersea data transmission cables in Tuesday's earthquake in Taiwan — is a sign of the vulnerability the world's telecommunications network, which was frenetically built out at the height of the Internet boom but has since attracted little investment.

However, activity is picking up, and the quake outage could open eyes to the need for more backup links.

"We are so accustomed to being connected at all points that it does shock people when suddenly it's no longer there," said telecommunications analyst Tim Dillon. "Particularly in this region, which is tremendously connected in terms of mobile (phone), data and Internet use."

On Thursday, long-distance telephone connections were elusive and Internet speeds remained slow — and in some areas nonexistent — in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea. It is expected to take weeks to fully repair the links.

"I haven't experienced anything like this before," said Francis Lun, general manager at Fulbright Securities, one of many Hong Kong financial firms that were forced to conduct business by telephone on Wednesday.

"We've become too dependent on these optic fibers — a few of them get damaged, and everything collapses. Many lost the opportunity to make fast money."

Breaks in the undersea cables are not uncommon — the culprits include earthquakes, volcanos, fishing trawlers, ship anchors and nibbling sharks. For this reason, fiber links are generally built as loops. For instance, FLAG Telecom's North Asia Loop runs undersea from Hong Kong to Taiwan to Korea to Japan, then takes another route back to Hong Kong. If one link in the loop breaks, data will automatically be switched to flow the other way around the ring, and customers would ideally not even notice a change.

Outages occur when too many links break at the same time on too many rings. The sea bottom south of Taiwan, where the earthquake occurred, may have a dozen cables running in a relatively small area (though the exact location of the cables is usually not publicized by the owners, typically groups of telecommunications companies).

In a similar event, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake in Algeria in 2003 damaged cables in the Mediterranean, cutting links to France and slowing down Internet access across the Middle East.

Part of the problem with this week's break may have been that a number of providers in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia may have rerouted U.S.-bound traffic through Europe to avoid the cut south of Taiwan. But there is just a handful of cables leading west.

"The cable routes to Europe are overcrowded," said Dillon, senior research director with U.S.-based Current Analysis, which studies the telecom industry.

Before the Internet, satellites were a viable backup to land and sea links for international phone calls. But satellites can't carry the volume of Internet traffic that fiber-optic cables enable. Using them is expensive, limiting them to "mission critical" purposes, said Duncan Clark of the Beijing-based consultancy BDA China.

That leaves Asia relying largely on high-speed cables running under the Pacific Ocean all the way to North America, still the technology and communications giant.

There are about 15 of these cables. Most of the high-capacity ones were installed in 2001, when companies raced to capitalize on what they thought was an imminent surge in demand for Internet traffic. But demand grew slower than expected, and the building boom ended badly for investors in companies like Global Crossing and MCI.

Now, Internet traffic is starting to take a serious bite out of the immediately available capacity on the cables, though they can still be upgraded or "lit" by additional laser beams to carry more data. But the Taiwan earthquake demonstrates that capacity is not everything: a big seismic event can affect many cables if they run close together.

Earlier this month, a consortium announced plans to lay a new $500 million cable that should provide some more redundancy, enhancing a lower-speed system that serves as the lone direct link between the United States and China.

The consortium for the 11,000-mile system includes New York-based Verizon Communications Inc., China Telecom, China Netcom, China Unicom and companies in Korea and Taiwan. Construction is due to begin in the next three months and end in the third quarter of 2008.

"That cable will assist in providing additional restoration, additional redundant routes, because obviously it's a very active region in terms of seismic activity," Verizon spokesman Gil Broyles said.

With the cable in place, Broyles said, Verizon has the opportunity to go beyond the usual "ring" structure and configure a "mesh architecture." Instead of routing in one of two directions around a loop, meshed systems have more than two routes to each endpoint.

Verizon earlier this month completed a mesh system under the Atlantic, the ocean with by far the greatest amount of data traffic.

"The undersea cable in the Atlantic is a little bit more of a mature infrastructure," Broyles said. "We basically combine six cable routes within one system so that customer traffic can survive even multiple cuts."

That makes the Atlantic an unlikely place for a major outage, but it could still happen elsewhere.

Stephan Beckert, an analyst at Washington-based research firm TeleGeography, points out that there is just one high-speed cable loop, the Southern Cross, connecting Australia and New Zealand to the U.S. The two strands of the loop both run through Hawaii (though over different islands), a seismically active archipelago.