Environmental News Archive

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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