Total blackout averted in sub-sea cable crisis but resilience must increase

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In these challenging economic times the last thing anyone needs is an complete internet blackout which is what Internet users were twice on the brink of facing in recent weeks. First, the FLAG FEA, SMW4 and SMW3 subsea communications cables near Alexandria in Egypt were cut in mid-December, then just 24 hours after these breaches had been repaired the SMW4, the South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4 cable – also known as Sea-Me-We 4 – was damaged by an underwater earthquake.

At one stage, three out of four lines were damaged and the region could have endured a total internet blackout if the fourth had been affected, according to one commentator. Accidents will happen but the same cable being damaged twice in the same month is just plain unlucky. The seriousness of the situation is illustrated by the first cable cut resulting in the direct link from the Middle East to Europe being almost entirely broken. Westbound traffic had to be diverted eastwards via Hong Kong and Singapore resulting in longer roundtrip delays and some traffic couldn’t be re-routed at all.

Fortunately repair vessels were in the area to address the second damage having only just packed up their tools from fixing the first and service was restored in time for businesses’ return from the New Year break.

Such events underline that connectivity is truly the fourth utility and, although suggesting a total blackout is a little alarmist, the impacts on businesses from expensively re-routed connections are without doubt considerable. Local financial markets that trade with Europe, for example, will have found delays in getting live market data and their trading will have been compromised. Putting a figure on that sort of business impact is impossible – though in the current volatile economic climate I’m sure some traders might have benefited from staying out of the market for a while.

The December breaches follow a spate of cable cuts affecting the region at the beginning of 2008 and it seems clear that in busy shipping lanes such as the Suez canal, greater redundancy is needed if users are to be assured of reliable service. Obviously, no one can police thousands of kilometres of undersea cable but the series of cuts and disruptions experienced during 2008 suggest greater attention needs to be given to protecting such important connections or looking to increase resilience with satellite connectivity and cable that travels alternative routes.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.