Internet cable cuts raise alarms over infrastructure vulnerabilities

Outages may lead to greater demand for telecom capacity, experts say

While the damaged cables have caused major service problems in the Middle East and parts of Asia, both ISPs and experts say the disruptions are unlikely to greatly affect American businesses.

First, the good news: it doesn't look as though the Web traffic disruption that occurred this week after two underwater cables were damaged in Mediterranean Sea will have much of an impact on businesses in America.

The two cables, one operated by Flag Telecom and the other by a consortium of 15 telecommunications operators, were apparently damaged early on Jan. 30 by ship anchors that may have severed the cables during a storm. Stephan Beckert, an analyst with TeleGeography Research, says the two cables account for about 75% of the network capacity between Europe and the Middle East.

But while the damaged cables have caused major service problems in the Middle East and parts of Asia, both ISPs and experts say the disruptions are unlikely to greatly affect American businesses. AT&T and Verizon Business, the two American carriers with the largest international presence that both have network capacity on the damaged cables, say they are already rerouting traffic through other cables, and that their networks throughout the Middle East and Asia are running at their normal capacity again. Additionally, a Verizon Business spokesman says the company is buying up additional capacity to take care of any latency issues that customers might experience as a result of the cable damages.

There has been reported difficulty, however, with receiving data sent from the United States to countries affected by the cable damage. Keynote Systems, a company that monitors Internet and mobile Web site performance, has found while conducting research in India that there has been an average 50% increase in the time it takes to download Web sites and a 10% decrease in the availability of Web sites overall.

"Users in our monitoring locations in India and South Africa are seeing slowdowns and deteriorations in their service," says Abelardo Gonzalez, a product manager at Keynote. Gonzalez believes the damaged cable incident will spur many global companies to think about new ways of staying connected to the Web in case of emergencies. In particular, he says companies should look into having backup connectivity through multi-honing their ISPs or even through having a satellite uplink for last-resort connections.

On a more macro level, the damage to the cables has raised concerns about future incidents in which a greater number of cables could experience more significant levels of destruction. Paul Polishuk, the president and chairman of the board of the IGI Group of Companies, says one problem with many of the underwater cable systems is that many of the cables join together at shared landing points that could leave large swathes of telecom infrastructure vulnerable to potential terrorist attacks.

"The more important thing is security aspect," he says. "A lot of people have been talking about the potential for terrorism, since a lot of cables go into one landing place. Imagine what would happen if a bunch of cables were cut at same time."

Andrew Odlyzko, the director of the University of Minnesota's Digital Technology Center, shares Polishuk's concern about the cables' vulnerability and thinks that any significant damage to cables at major landing points would have serious economic consequences.

Damage to cables doesn't even have to come from terrorism, Odlyzko says, citing the 2006 earthquakes that severely disrupted Taiwan's Internet access. In the near future, he predicts, companies are going to start demanding that operators diversify the locations of their cabling systems, so that if one major system goes down, traffic can more quickly be rerouted along an alternate path. He also thinks the estimated two-week repair time for the cables is relatively slow and shows that operators may need to put more money into repair infrastructure in order to prevent similarly long outages in the future.

Of course, as Gonzalez notes, no amount of preparation will be able to prevent all disasters, and businesses will still have to be prepared to cope during major disruptions.

"What you have to do as a business is to make sure that you have adequate resources available to customers 100% of time," he says.

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