IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ship's anchor caused cut in Internet cable

A ship's anchor lying at the bottom of the sea was behind one of two cuts last week in undersea Internet cables around the Middle East that caused dramatic outages across the region and in parts of Asia, the cable-owner company said Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A ship's anchor lying at the bottom of the sea was behind one of two cuts last week in undersea Internet cables around the Middle East that caused dramatic outages across the region and in parts of Asia, the cable-owner company said Friday.

FLAG Telecom said its repair ship managed to recover one end of the cut FALCON cable in the Persian Gulf, 35 miles north of Dubai, between the Emirates and Oman.

At the site, FLAG's repair crew discovered an abandoned anchor which the company said was behind the cut last Friday. The anchor, weighing more than 5 tons, was pulled up to the surface.

It was not immediately clear whether FLAG had any indication what vessel the anchor belonged to, or how such a heavy anchor could have moved to snap the cable or whether the cable itself was drifting and why.

At the time of the cut — the second in three days and involving three separate Internet cables — rough weather was reported in that part of the Gulf.

The unusual cuts led to disruptions in services, slowed down businesses and hampered personal Internet usage. They also caused a flurry of Internet blogger speculation, including mentions of sabotage — allegations authorities and FLAG have refused to comment.

"It is difficult to comment right now on this," said a FLAG spokesman, reached over the telephone. "We are doing our own investigation." He spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with company policy.

Ovum analyst Matt Walker said undersea cable networks are highly vulnerable to deliberate attack and need enhanced security.

"If ports, railways, gas pipelines, and other types of networks are being secured against possible sabotage, we must similarly increase the security of undersea optical highways," said Walker.

The cuts also underlined potential threats that disrupted Internet connectivity could pose to organizations and businesses worldwide. Large-scale Internet disruptions are rare, but East Asia suffered nearly two months of outages and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in December 2006.

"The economic cost of losing, or even just slowing down, international communications is extremely high," said Walker. "This risk has to be factored into the calculations behind the investment level and design of undersea optical networks."

FLAG said it has fully restored circuits to some customers and switched others to alternative routes.

The FLAG repair ship is trying to reconnect the Persian Gulf cable and repairs are expected to be done by Sunday. Weather conditions have improved and are now moderate, FLAG said.

Meanwhile, a second flag repair ship continued repair work off the north coast of Egypt, where the first undersea cable was cut Jan. 30, some 5.2 miles from the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.

That cut sliced two cables — the FLAG Europe-Asia cable, owned by FLAG, which stands for Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe, and another cable lying next to it, identified as SEA-ME-WE 4, or South East Asia-Middle East-West Europe 4 cable, owned by a consortium of 16 international telecommunication companies.

It was still not known what caused that cut, on a very narrow route linking Egypt and Palermo, on the Italian island of Sicily. Egypt's telecommunication ministry said no ships were registered near the location when the cut happened north of Alexandria.

FLAG, in a statement posted on the company Web site, said it had completed a survey of the cable cut off Egypt that involved "tracking along the cable path and checking for cuts using remotely operated" submarine robots.

The results of the survey were not revealed, but FLAG added these repairs would also be completed Sunday.

Earlier, the FLAG spokesman said that a new undersea cable — the FLAG Mediterranean Cable — was being laid between Egypt and France, that would be "fully resilient" against cuts such as last week's and "provide a diversity in routes." He did not elaborate what that resilience entailed, but said it would take months to set up the new cable.

Also, state Telecom Egypt said it sealed a $125 million contract on Jan. 31 with French-American telecommunications equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent, for a new 1,900 miles long undersea cable between Egypt and France.

That submarine cable, named TE North, will link Sidi Kerir on Egypt's northern coast to the French port of Marseille.

It will have multiple times the bandwidth capacity of existing cables and enable Telecom Egypt to "expand international connectivity, providing diversity from existing cable routes." Egyptian media have said that the new Telecom cable would take over 18 months to complete.