Cut Undersea Cables Raise Questions of Safety
Tuesday February 5, 11:38 pm ET
By HEATHER TIMMONS
NEW DELHI — Four undersea communication cables have been cut in the last week, raising questions about the safety of the network that handles most of the world’s Internet and telephone traffic.
Most telecommunications specialists and cable operators say that sabotage seems unlikely, but no one knows specifically how the cables were damaged or if the incidents were related. The Egyptian government on Sunday dismissed one theory — that a ship traveling off course because of bad weather was responsible for severing the first two cables last week. No ships passed the area in the Mediterranean where the cables were located, the country’s Ministry of Communications said.
“This has been an eye-opener for us, and everyone in the telecom industry worldwide,” said Col. R.S. Parihar, the secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of India. Today, the cause of the problem may have been an anchor, “but what if it is sabotage tomorrow?” Mr. Parihar asked.
“These are owned by private operators,” he said, “and there are no governments or armies protecting these cables.”
Most recently, a cable operated by Q-Tel of Qatar, which linked Qatar to the United Arab Emirates, was cut Friday. Communications in the Middle East have been hardest hit by the damage, though India, the United States and Europe have also experienced slowdowns.
Telecommunications operators have been trying to diversify the routes used for transmissions, said Alan Mauldin, research director with TeleGeography Research, particularly since an earthquake in Taiwan in 2006 disrupted service in Asia.
The cable network contains “choke points” — like those off the coast of Egypt and Singapore where many cables run, Mr. Mauldin said.
A spokesman for Q-Tel, Adel al Mutawa, said Qatar was operating at about 60 percent of telephone capacity, but that Internet and data transmission services were running at normal speed. Most telecommunications companies affected by the cuts in the last week rerouted service through other cables. Q-Tel will not know what caused the rupture in the Qatar-UAE Submarine Cable System until it sends a repair ship to pull the cable off the ocean floor, Mr. Mutawa said.
Undersea cables carry about 95 percent of the world’s telephone and Internet traffic, according to the International Cable Protection Committee, an 86-member group that works with fishing, mining and drilling companies to curb damage to submarine cables. Information travels faster and less expensively under the ocean than it does via satellite, and undersea cable transmission is gaining market share, the group said.
The Egyptinan Ministry of Communications and Information Technology said Sunday that no ships had passed through the area in the Mediterranean where two cables, known as the Sea Me We 4 and Flag’s Europe-Asia cable, were cut earlier last week.
“The site is a restricted area, which excludes the possibility that the malfunction resulted from a crossing ship,” the agency said. Internet efficiency in Egypt has reached about 70 percent, the statement said.
A third cable, known as Falcon, was cut Friday morning about 35 miles off the coast of Dubai in the Gulf. Wet, windy weather in some areas around the Gulf has shut ports and delayed ships.
Two of the damaged cables, the Flag Europe-Asia cable and Falcon, are owned by Flag Telecom, a subsidiary of the Indian conglomerate Reliance ADA Group.
Flag Telecom has never had two cables down at the same time in the region, a spokesman, Vineet Kumar, said. Flag Telecom’s network is one of the “newest in existence” so it would be unlikely the cables would break because of age or wear and tear.
“There has to be something very abnormal” for these cables to be cut, Mr. Kumar said, but added that the company would not know what that was until the cables are pulled up and repaired.
But he ruled out sabotage, noting that if someone was trying to cut off communications to the Middle East, they would have also damaged the other cables that are still operating.
The most interesting facet of this story is what I think I’ve realized today. Hotmail has been down since cable number five was mysteriously cut. Does this mean that the servers are based overseas? Curious. I don’t know how comfortable I am with that realization, correct or otherwise. It’s just too coincidental for my taste. I may revert to gmail afterall.