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Disruption in Internet, phone services highlight dependence on telecom industry

Disruption in Internet, phone services highlight dependence on telecom industry

A few seconds of undersea quaking was all it took to cause massive telecommunications disruptions throughout tech-savvy Asia, where Internet services have been snapped or slowed, phone lines disabled and financial transactions crippled.
Analysts said the service disruption _ caused by the rupture of two undersea data transmission cables in Tuesday's earthquake in Taiwan _ highlights how crucial the cable and Internet infrastructure has become to the modern world.
A decade ago, telephones and faxes were essential to businesses and governments. Now, telephone lines often take second place, piggybacking on networks set up for Internet or mobile communication.
"Governments now recognize these industries as fundamental infrastructure, equal to electricity, water, sewage, roads," said Markus Buchhorn, an information technology expert at Australian National University. "So if you do have a major breakdown, people will move heaven and earth to fix it."
Telecom companies scrambled to reroute connections after the break in the undersea cables. A Taiwanese officials said nearly all of Asia's Internet service and 80 percent of its phone service was to be restored by noon (0400 GMT) Thursday.
In Hong Kong, a government statement said Thursday it would take at least five days to partially repair the damage to two undersea cables. A Hong Kong telecommunications official said all seven major cables serving the Chinese territory were affected, some severely.
In the meantime, telecommunications remained slow _ and in some areas nonexistent _ in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea.
In Seoul, banks reported a slowdown in foreign exchange trading. Hong Kong's Internet data capacity was reduced by 50 percent.
Meanwhile, some customers in China completely lost Internet access. Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines reported slowdowns or access difficulties, mainly to foreign Web sites, including search engines and some e-mail programs. Thailand reported a disruption in international phone service.
"I haven't experienced anything like this before," said Francis Lun, general manager at Fulbright Securities, one of many Hong Kong financial firms that were forced to conduct business by telephone on Wednesday.
"We've become too dependent on these optic fibers _ a few of them get damaged, and everything collapses. Many lost the opportunity to make fast money."
The disruption occurred in the week between Christmas and New Year's, possibly lessening the impact for many companies whose staff may be on holiday. But nevertheless, it frustrated individuals and businesses alike.
"We are so accustomed to being connected at all points that it does shock people when suddenly its no longer there," said telecoms analyst Tim Dillon. "Particularly in this region, which is tremendously connected in terms of mobile (phone), data and Internet use."
Breaks in the undersea cables are not uncommon _ the culprits include earthquakes, volcanos, fishing trawlers, ship anchors and nibbling sharks. Telecom companies have redundancies in place to provide often instantaneous backup service in the event of a failure, particularly if it is a more localized glitch.
"Given Asia's geographic instability and natural disasters _ earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding _ there is a higher threat to connectivity. But any service provider in the region understands this. They are not unprepared," said Dillon, senior research director with U.S.-based Current Analysis, which studies the telecom industry.
Part of the problem with this week's break is that a number of providers may have looked westward to Europe to repair their connections.
Asia relies largely on high-speed cables running under the Pacific Ocean all the way to North America, still the technology and communications giant.
There are about 15 of these cables; in evidence of the need for more, an Asian consortium was formed earlier this month to lay a new fiber-optic cable from China to the United States in order to boost the capacity of telecom services.
Having to reroute through Europe, however, telecommunication companies are all competing for a share of just a handful of cables.
"In this case, we have a lot of traffic all going to alternate routings at the same time. It's obviously going to result in slower speeds and congestion. The cable routes to Europe are overcrowded," Dillon said.
It is possible for telecommunications providers to provide backup transmission capacity through satellite, but such services are expensive and likely to be used only for "mission critical" purposes, said Duncan Clark, of Beijing-based consultancy BDA China.
That would include governments, encrypted data, bank services, medical records and top corporations, he said.
"The large corporates will get priority. Joe Consumer wanting to look at Web sites is way down the list," Clark said.


Updated : 2020-12-02 18:29 GMT+08:00