Environmental News Archive

An almost weekly update of environmental news, particularly marine updates, with occasional splatters of transportation, indigenous, ideas of sustainability and sustainable development from around the world.


The cable disconnect

29 December 2006

Wednesday — Dec 27, 2006 — will go down in history as the day the digital world was stopped by a natural disaster.

As businesses start to count the losses and telecommunication companies rush to repair the underwater cables destroyed by this week's earthquakes off Taiwan, the question on the minds of many is this: How in the high-tech world could these tremors have caused so much chaos?

The answer is simple: For all the technological strides that have taken place, the global telecommunications system still depends on just a few lines — vulnerable undersea cables that rest on the seabed up to 8km below the surface — to carry "packets" of digital data.

And for all the talk of overinvestment in such cables in the 1990s, the momentum has ground to a halt. The capacity has hardly increased for years, even though the Internet has exploded. China, alone, now has more than 120 million users, compared to just 9 million in 2000 — all linked to the world by these undersea lines.

These cables are actually tiny threads of flexible glass, or fibre optic filaments, that are bundled together and covered with insulation and other protective materials. They are usually built as a loop with multiple landing points, so that when one part of the cable system is disrupted, the traffic can be rerouted to other lines.

But when so many lines are hit, the congestion on the others can cause traffic to slow to a crawl. Even yesterday, Asia continued to have the slowest Web connection worldwide with a response time of 450 milliseconds, more than twice the average of 200 milliseconds.

What's more, it will take at least two weeks for normal service to resume as ships are sent out to fix the damaged lines.

Unfortunately, many of these cables lie in one of the world's most active earthquake zones — vulnerable to forces of nature and even fishing boats.

Around the middle of the year, Pakistan's Internet service was disrupted for 12 days after a boat ripped apart its only undersea cable line. Now Taiwan's quake, which measured 6.7 on the Ritcher scale, has struck at the "the worst possible" spot — an area teeming with clusters of undersea cables, Mr Alan Mauldin, research director at TeleGeography Inc, a Washington-based firm specialising in communications, told Bloomberg.

China Netcom Group Corp, a Chinese fixed-line carrier, said that as many as eight of its undersea cables were affected.

In contrast, the 9.1 earthquake that triggered the devastating 2004 tsunami did not cause a single undersea cable to snap, Mr Mauldin added.

But nature's precise targeting alone cannot be blamed for Wednesday's virtual blackout. It costs up to US$500,000 ($767,000) to lay a single kilometre of cables. Thousands of such kilometres were laid in the 1990s, but the returns dried up and no one was keen to pour money into fibre-optic activity for years. The next wave of investments is overdue, and just earlier this month a consortium announced plans to spend US$500 million on a high-speed undersea link directly between the United States and China.

The quake shows that not only is more cable required, but they have to be spread out so that a single shock will not cause so much damage, experts said.

"The existing link and the alternative indirect routes (in Asia) are inadequate," Mr Albert Lin, an analyst at American Technology Research in San Francisco, said in a note to clients.

And fixing them is no child's play.

"These cables basically have little fibre optic lines running through them, thousands of them, and each one has to be manually traced and reconnected," said Mr Rob Enderle, a California-based technology expert. "Before you can even do that, you need to get the thing up off the ocean floor."

Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan's biggest phone company, said that four ships were heading out to conduct the repairs, starting Jan 2.

China Network Communications added that two boats were already on the job.

The cable repair ships charge about US$25,000 a day. But that is nothing compared to the cost of delay.

"Think of the organisations in these geographies that can't trade right now," Mr Enderle told Bloomberg. "A single trader, being offline for five minutes, can lose $5 million, $10 million, $20 million ... The amount of money we are talking about is probably going to be legendary when we finally figure it all out."


BEIJING – Forget the quake experts. How are the snakes behaving?

Two days after tremors in Taiwan knocked the digital world off its axis, state media revealed China has come up with its own system to predict the next big one. In it, snakes take centrestage.

"Of all the creatures on Earth, snakes are perhaps the most sensitive to earthquakes," said Mr Jiang Weisong, director of the earthquake bureau in Nanning, southern China.

He claimed that they could sense an earthquake 120 km away, three to five days before it happens. "When an earthquake is about to occur, snakes will move out of their nests, even in the cold of winter," he said. "If the earthquake is a big one, the snakes will even smash into walls while trying to escape."

So, the bureau now monitors snakes at local snake farms via a 24-hour video feed linked to an Internet connection. - TODAY/st


Who Wants To Be Nmp? 48 People

Dec 28 2006

A TOTAL of 48 applications have been submitted for the post of Nominated
Member of Parliament (NMP) this year - a record high since the NMP scheme
began in 1990.

There are 36 submissions from the general public, with 12 nominations from
the six functional groups that represent the various business, social,
media and labour organisations in Singapore. This is a jump from the 37
and 21 applicants in 2004 and 2001 respectively.

Not surprised by the interest in the NMP position, political analysts
attributed it to increased political awareness, coupled with the
Government's call for more engagement.

Calling it a "coming of age" for the post-65 generation, Professor Alan
Chong, Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore's (NUS)
Department of Political Science, said: "This is the generation that has
not experienced keenly the hardships of the past when a more authoritarian
style was accepted as the price of economic success.

"This group would be more vocal, having grown up in the successive phrases
of Singapore's economic prosperity and all the influences of
globalisation. They would have also imbibed democratic ideas of one form
or another."

Up for the post include businessman Dr Ameen Talib; the Crime Library's
Ms Jolyn Chua; lawyer and Today columnist Siew Kum Hong; Environmental
Challenge Organisation's Mr Wilson Ang; and the Animal Concerns Research
and Education Society's Mr Louis Ng.

Seeking a second term are Nature Society Singapore president Dr Geh Min;
biotechnology businessman Dr Tan Sze Wee; NUS engineering lecturer Dr Ong
Soh Khim; and social work volunteer Eunice Olsen.

Former NMP and lawyer Mr Chandra Mohan said it is a positive sign that
more candidates are trying. "It is a sign of the times and it is also the
call from various quarters, including the Government," said the lawyer.

A Special Select Committee, chaired by Speaker of Parliament Abdullah
Tarmugi, will consider and interview the nominees in January before
passing on their recommendations to President S R Nathan for approval.
Parliament can have up to nine NMPs, and each term lasts two-and-a-half
years. - Sheralyn Tay

Rain Strain Again

Retaining wall collapses, two families evacuated

Dec 28 2006
Sheralyn Tay

TWO homes in Upper Serangoon Road became victims of the recent incessant
downpour when a three-metre-high retaining wall collapsed yesterday,
damaging a kitchen and forcing the evacuation of both families.

Calling it a "slope failure", the Building and Construction Authority
(BCA) put the mishap down to the prolonged rain of the last few weeks.
Water had pooled at the foot of a 40-metre slope behind the retaining
wall, weakening the slope.

This caused soil and vegetation to slide down onto the wall, which cracked
under the pressure, collapsed and hit the kitchen of 90, Jalan Girang,
damaging the ceiling and the store-room.

The unit's owner, Mr Chia Poh Cheng, said: "I had been hearing a lot of
creaking noises through the night. When I woke up this morning, the first
thing I saw was ... the wall had collapsed."

His family of four and their next-door neighbours were evacuated for
safety reasons. The Chias said they would spend the night at a hotel.

The BCA also advised the owners of a house across the road to engage a
professional engineer to assess structural stability of the retaining wall
near their home.

Works are underway to protect the slope with canvas. A berm, or raised
barrier, will be constructed in front of the wall to stabilise it.

Mr Seah Kian Peng, MP for Marine Parade GRC, said: "We will do what we can
to help the residents."

The BCA said that vulnerable sites are those with high, steep slopes and
slopes where poor drainage allows water to pool and weaken the ground.

The authority is monitoring the areas where slope failures have occurred,
and advises home-owners to be on the lookout for signs of slope failure.
If they spot any, they should stay away from the area and seek
professional advice.

The Telco Tsunami

Taiwan quakes break undersea cables, disrupting Internet connections in

28 December 2006
Christie Loh

WHEN an earthquake struck Taiwan at 10.26pm on Tuesday - the second
anniversary of the deadly Asian tsunami - seismologists warned of giant
waves hitting the Philippines.

They were wrong, but the ripples have now spread across Asia. Web surfing
has slowed to a crawl, leaving one of the world's most tech-savvy regions
in a virtual blackout.

The tremors cut Taiwan's external links for hours. And, when neighbouring
countries including Singapore woke up yesterday morning, they felt the
pain too. Internet connections to websites hosted overseas were painfully
slow as the quakes had broken major undersea telecommunications cables -
the fragile links that carry data between Asia and the rest of the world -
on the southern tip of Taiwan.

The damage was possibly greater than it was during the last serious
incident in 1999.

The three local telcos, all of whom are reliant on the affected cables for
data and some voice traffic, gave assurances that they were diverting
traffic to other networks while partners in Taiwan and Greater China
repaired the cables. Only local websites enjoyed normal surfing speeds.

Meanwhile, "because everyone is competing for the available bandwidth,
there is congestion now on the remaining bandwidth", SingTel spokesman
Chia Boon Chong told Today. MobileOne, which provides IDD call services,
said yesterday evening that phone lines to Taiwan were also "heavily

Earlier in the day, calls from Singapore to Taiwan could not be connected
at all, said a private banker who cannot execute any trades without verbal
approval from her Taiwanese clients.

She wasn't the only one to find her hands tied. "I can't trade if I don't
know the prices," Mr David Leong of First State Investments, which manages
equities worth US$15 billion, told Bloomberg. "I've put in limit orders to
try to minimise the damage, but even then you need to have the basic
information," he lamented.

Currency traders in Seoul said that as communications with Singapore and
Hong Kong were cut, spot trading on the Korean won with offshore brokers
had to be halted. Such transactions average around US$1.5 billion a day.

And they will have to bear with the disruption for a while more.
Taipei-based Chunghwa Telecom, the country's largest phone operator, said
the repairs could take two to three weeks while it progressively restored
parts of the network.

But Singapore's StarHub promised that normalcy here would return "after a
few days". In the meantime, traffic would "only be slow at times to our
subscribers" numbering 308,000 households, said spokeswoman Jeannie Ong.
StarHub is also working to restore transmission of two digital cable
television channels, Hallmark and TV5Monde.

This is not the first time that a Taiwan quake has extensively damaged
submarine cables. In 1999, tremors there broke the Asia Pacific Cable
Network (APCN). It is the predecessor of the US$1-billion ($1.54-billion)
APCN 2, one of the six networks currently affected and partly owned by
Asian carriers including SingTel and StarHub. The irony is that when APCN
2 was launched in 2001, it was touted as the region's first cable system
with a "self-healing function", said to be "capable of restoring itself
instantly with its ring configuration when a failure occurs in a part of
the system".

What happened to the instant healing? "It seems that the quake has been so
bad that there have been multiple breaks," said Mr Vignesa Moorthy, chief
executive of ViewQwest, a company selling Internet access to businesses.

Where there is physical damage, cable ships will have to send automated
robotic arms to fix the breakage underwater. "It's not just a software
problem. On the seabed, it's a tougher situation," telecoms analyst Victor
Liu of research firm In-Stat told Today.

The cables lie some 8km below the ocean's surface; each kilometre of cable
costs up to an estimated US$500,000 to lay. APCN 2 alone stretches 19,000

While there is little that telcos can do to protect themselves against
acts of nature, they can start building alternative networks, said Mr
Bertrand Bidaud, vice-president at research firm Gartner.

One potential route is the Asia-America Gateway Cable System, which
bypasses earthquake-prone Taiwan. It "will avoid some of the areas most
prone to seismic activity, conditions which are hazardous to undersea
cables", the network's consortium of owners, including StarHub and Telekom
Malaysia, said in a press release during its launch in June this year.

But before the Asia-America system comes into service in 2008, cable
networks remain vulnerable.

Internet suppliers such as ViewQwest saw 90 per cent of its 4,000
customers deprived of access to the Web yesterday morning. If the downtime
continues and exceeds acceptable limits as defined in contractual
agreements, ViewQwest might have to compensate its customers. If so, the
company will in turn seek compensation from the carriers supplying it
Internet traffic, said Mr Moorthy.

Numbers told a bleak tale. According to Internet Traffic Report, a monitor
of global Web data flow, Asia yesterday had the slowest Web connection
with response time at 619 milliseconds, or triple the average 200
milliseconds. "This technological issue is aggravating already-thin
liquidity," BNP Paribas' senior currency analyst Thio Chin Loo told Today.

If normalcy does not return soon, companies cannot blame employees for
feeling demoralised. Ms Sumeda Kaw, marketing manager of business process
outsourcing service provider Aspirant Technologies, could not give a
potential client a "live" Internet demonstration because of the
disruption. After giving an impromptu verbal demo, a frustrated Ms Kaw was
ready to call it a day. "When the connection gets like this, you just want
to pack your bags and go home," she told Today.

Away from business concerns, those who play online games requiring high
broadband speeds were equally glum. "If the connection lags and you're
playing against other gamers, they will 'kill' you because you're reacting
more slowly or retarding," said avid gamer May Soon.