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Anatomy of an Internet blackout

How Egypt’s shutdown unfolded in front of North American Internet operators

By , Network World
January 28, 2011 02:29 PM ET

Network World - The shutdown of Egypt's ties to the rest of the global Internet was not announced by the government -- instead, 3,500 Internet routes suddenly vanished, with more continuing to wink out, leaving network operators in North America to wonder what exactly had happened and what the ripple effects might be.

The first report that Internet connectivity to and within Egypt was disabled came at 5:28 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thursday, Jan. 27, on the North American Network Operators Group e-mail reflector:

"I'm hearing reports of (in declining order of confirmability):

1) Internet connectivity loss on major (broadband) ISPs

2) No SMS

3) Intermittent connectivity with smaller (dialup?) ISPs

4) No mobile service in major cities -- Cairo, Alexandria."

This and other operators on the NANOG list are looking for any credible information on how to ensure the Internet outage in Egypt does not disrupt their business in other regions.

"The working assumption here is that the Egyptian government has made the decision to shut down all external, and perhaps internal electronic communication as a reaction to the ongoing protests in that country," the operator wrote on the NANOG e-mail reflector. "If anyone can provide more details as to what they're seeing, the extent, plus times and dates, it would be very useful. In moments like this there are often many unconfirmed rumors: I'm seeking concrete reliable confirmation which I can pass onto ... those working to bring some communications back up."

Egypt yesterday cut connectivity to the Internet amid widespread political protests throughout the country. Mobile operators were also ordered to cut service. Citizens were relying on satellite communications and Twitter feeds to communicate within and outside of Egypt.

Here in North America, one operator noticed yesterday evening, Eastern time, that most of the Autonomous Systems operating in Egypt were not announcing any, or most, prefixes -- except for AS20928, which belongs to Noor Data Networks, the provider used by the Egyptian Stock Exchange.

At 5:34 p.m. EST, another operator noted that Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet's global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, according to the operator's posting on the NANOG reflector, "leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt's service providers."

At first, it was unclear whether the root of the problem was physical or not:

"I guess this begs the question of whether or not we're seeing actual Layer 1 (transmission) going down or just the effects of mass BGP withdrawals," the operator posits. "Are we seeing lights out on fibre links or just peering sessions going down? Both could still point to a coordinated intentional blackout by the Egyptian gov't though."

Another operator responds that if it were a cable or fiber cut, it would affect more connectivity than just Egypt.

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