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Internet outages seen across Middle East, Asia

At least for a while, the World Wide Web wasn't so worldwide.  Two cables that carry Internet traffic deep under the Mediterranean Sea snapped, disrupting service Thursday across a swath of Asia and the Middle East.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At least for a while, the World Wide Web wasn't so worldwide.

Two cables that carry Internet traffic deep under the Mediterranean Sea snapped, disrupting service Thursday across a swath of Asia and the Middle East.

India took one of the biggest hits, and the damage from its slowdowns and outages rippled to some U.S. and European companies that rely on its lucrative outsourcing industry to handle customer service calls and other operations.

"There's definitely been a slowdown," said Anurag Kuthiala, a system engineer at the New Delhi office of Symantec Corp., a security software maker based in California. "We're able to work, but the system is very slow."

While the cause of the damage was not yet known, the scope was wide: Traffic slowed on the Dubai stock exchange, and there was concern that workers who labor for the well-off in the Mideast might not be able to send money home to poor relatives.

Although disruptions to larger U.S. firms were not widespread, the outage raised questions about the vulnerability of the infrastructure of the Internet. One analyst called it a "wake-up call," and another cautioned that no one was immune.

The cables, which lie undersea north of the Egyptian port of Alexandria, were snapped Wednesday just as the working day was ending in India, so the full impact was not apparent until Thursday.

There was speculation a ship's anchor might be to blame. The two cables, named FLAG Europe Asia and SEA-ME-WE 4, are in close proximity.

Egyptian officials said initial attempts to reach the cables were stymied by poor weather. Repairs could take a week once workers arrive at the site, and engineers were scrambling to reroute traffic to satellites and to other cables.

The Egyptian minister of communications and information technology said Internet service in that country had been restored to about 45 percent and would be up to 80 percent by Friday, the state news agency reported.

The snapped cables — which lie on the sea floor and at some points are no thicker than the average human thumb — caused problems across an area thousands of miles wide. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain all reported trouble.

But in India, which earns billions of dollars a year from outsourcing, the loss of Internet access was potentially disastrous. The Internet Service Providers' Association of India said the country had lost half its capacity.

TeleGeography, a U.S. research group that tracks submarine cables, said the disruption cut capacity by 75 percent on the route from the Mideast to Europe.

Such large-scale disruptions are rare but not unheard of. East Asia suffered nearly two months of outages and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in 2006.

In the Mideast, outages caused a slowdown in traffic on Dubai's stock exchange late Wednesday. The exchange was back up by Thursday, but many Middle Eastern businesses were still experiencing difficulties.

There was concern for millions of South Asians who send money home. They do everything from construction to child care for the wealthy and are paid little by local standards — but their income is often a lifeline for poorer families back in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

"The system is a bit slow today, but we have not experienced a total breakdown," said Sudhir Kumar Shetty, who runs Abu Dhabi's UAE Exchange, a money transfer firm.

The major test will come Friday, the first day of the month, when thousands of foreign workers are expected to descend on the company's 53 branches to send money home.

With two of the three cables that pass through the Suez Canal cut, Internet traffic from the Middle East and India intended for Europe was forced to reroute eastward, around most of the globe.

In India, the Internet was sluggish, with some users unable to connect at all and others left frustrated by spotty service.

Analysts said India had built up massive amounts of bandwidth in recent years and would likely recover without major economic losses. Larger companies with sophisticated backups appeared equipped to weather the outages well — but smaller firms said they could lose business if full Internet access was not quickly restored.

"Telecom and bandwidth are the bedrocks of the IT (information-technology) industry," said Ajit Ranade, the chief economist at the Aditya Birla Group, an international manufacturing and services company. "If something happens to the bedrock, obviously the IT industry will suffer."

Many larger U.S. companies said the effect was minimal, partly because the data routes that head east from Asia, under the Pacific Ocean, were intact.

Citigroup Inc. spokesman Samuel Wang said some of his company's customer-service system was affected, but only minimally. He said the bank relied on backup systems and was "back to business as usual."

Intel Corp. said its Indian operation, which employs about 3,000 people and is focused on research and development, has a system with many safeguards built in.

"When one of the nodes goes down, the network is able to reroute itself," said Rahul Bedi, who heads Intel's South Asia business operations.

Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, said the outage should be a "wake-up call" about the need to better protect vital infrastructure.

"This shows how easy it would be to attack" vital networks, such as the Internet, mobile phones and electronic banking and government services.

Wednesday's damage wasn't terrorism — but it could have been, he said, adding that "when it comes to great technology, it's not about building it, it's how to protect it."