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India struggling to cope with Internet outages

Fallout spread Thursday from a cut in two undersea Internet cables off Egypt's coast, with India waking up to half of its bandwidth disrupted and widespread outages still hampering a wide swath of the Mideast.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fallout spread Thursday from a cut in two undersea Internet cables off Egypt's coast, with India waking up to half of its bandwidth disrupted and widespread outages still hampering a wide swath of the Mideast.

Officials said it could take a week or more to fix the cables, in part because of bad weather. Officials in several countries were scrambling to reroute traffic to satellites and to other cables through Asia.

In all, users in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain were affected. Israel was unaffected by the outages because its Internet traffic is connected to Europe through a different undersea cable, and Lebanon and Iraq were also operating normally.

The biggest impact to the rest of the world could come from the outages across India — where many U.S. companies outsource back-office operations including customer service call centers.
The outage also raised questions about the system's vulnerability. A Gulf analyst called it a "wake-up call" while an analyst in London cautioned that no one, including the West, was immune to such disruptions.

They could have a "massive impact on businesses," said Alex Burmaster, from Nielsen Online in London, and ordinary people "probably couldn't imagine" a life without the Internet.

Large-scale disruptions are rare but not unknown. East Asia suffered nearly two months of outages and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in December 2006. That repair operation also was hampered by bad weather.

So far, most governments in the region appeared to be operating normally, apparently because they had switched to backup satellite systems. However, the outages had caused slowdown in traffic on Dubai's stock exchange Wednesday.

In India, major outsourcing firms, such as Infosys and Wipro, and U.S. companies with significant back-office and research and development operations in India, such as IBM and Intel, said they were still trying to assess how their operations had been impacted, if at all.

But the president of the Internet Service Providers' Association of India, Rajesh Chharia, said companies that serve the East Coast of the United States and Britain had been badly hit.

"The companies that serve the (U.S.) East coast and the UK are worst affected. The delay is very bad in some cases," Chharia told The Associated Press. "They have to arrange backup plans or they have to accept the poor quality for the time being until the fiber is restored.

Chharia said some companies were rerouting their service through the Pacific route, bypassing the disrupted cables. He said roughly 50 percent of the country's bandwidth had been affected.

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

"There's no sense of how soon the problem will be fixed," he added.

It appeared the cables had been cut north of the port city of Alexandria, and rumors in Egypt said a ship's anchor had cut them.

However, a top Egyptian telecommunications official cautioned Thursday that workers won't know for sure what caused the cuts in the cables until they are able to get repair ships and divers to the area, off the northern coast of Egypt. The official in Egypt's Ministry of Communications and Information Technology asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Rough weather and seas prevented repair ships from getting to the site Wednesday, the official said — and it was unclear how soon they could get there.

And, even once the repair workers can arrive at the site, it could take as much as a week to repair the cable, the official said.

TeleGeography, a U.S. research group that tracks submarine cables around the world, said the Mediterranean undersea cable cuts reduced the amount of available capacity on the route from Mideast to Europe by 75 percent, and that until service was restored, many providers in Egypt and the Middle East would have to reroute their traffic around the globe, to Southeast Asia and across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Alan Mauldin, research chief at the Washington-based TeleGeography, said similar outages in the future could be averted by new cable construction — even though multiple cables could not guarantee against outages.

Mustafa Alani, head of security and terrorism department at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, said the outage should be a "wake-up call" for governments and professionals to divert more resources to protect vital infrastructure.

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

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

An official at the Dubai Mercantile Exchange, Gerald David, said trading Thursday morning resumed normally following the Wednesday slowdown after which backup systems kicked in. A Mercantile spokesman said the exchange partnered with Nymex network engineering and rerouted all network traffic from Dubai trading floor to two unaffected circuits.

Saudi Telecom Company did not answer calls on Thursday, a day off in the kingdom, but the English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News said Saudi Telecom had lost more than 50 percent of its international online connectivity due to the problem.