Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Five cables cut? Just what is going on?

One of the slides I use in many of my talks nowadays is a map from TeleGeography, a consultancy that specializes in international telecommunications infrastructure. It’s their submarine cable map, which does an excellent job of explaining how just tenuous sub-Saharan Africa’s connection to the internet is – at present, a single cable that runs down the west coast of the continent.

TeleGeography has gotten a huge number of media mentions the past couple of weeks because there has been a rash of cable cuts in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, affecting connectivity throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Single cuts aren’t uncommon – cables get snagged by ship anchors and damaged by earthquakes. But as the number of cuts – now up to five – increases, observers are getting increasingly speculative about possible causes. Possible information war against Iran? Probably not. But it’s deeply weird, a coincidence that seems to transcend statistic and demand some serious investigation.

Two of the cables damaged belong to Flag Telecom, a subsidiary of an Indian conglomerate. They say they’ve never had two cable breaks in the same region at the same time before. And it seems unlikely that their cables, which are fairly new, would break from routine use.

In the meantime, bloggers are predictably distressed. In a report on Global Voices, Amira Al-Hussaini finds middle eastern bloggers asking why their connectivity depends on just a few fragile cables, and why there isn’t more redundancy in the system. Actually, as an Africanist, I’ve been amazed at how much redundancy there is in the Middle East, compared to the African situation. With a single cable connecting South Africa to Portugal, a cable cut would radically impact connectivity for much of the continent. However, since cable access has been so expensive, many African ISPs rely on slower satellite connections, so in the case of a cable failure, they aren’t entirely shut off.

It’s fascinating to remember that, as much as we depend on this fantastically complex network, it ultimately comes down to some thick bundles of fiberoptic cables lying on the bottom of an ocean. No matter how creative we all are in our uses of the Internet, sever that cable and you cut off whole regions of the world.

7 Responses to “Five cables cut? Just what is going on?”

  1. hash says:

    It does make you stop and think doesn’t it. Also, I have a hard time thinking that this is just a highly abnormal statistical coincidence…

  2. Alaa says:

    5 cables ???!!!

    for some weird reason I only lost connectivity for a day yet my bank is still living in the stone age. Egyptian ISPs decided bloggers are more important than bankers maybe?

    bandwidth is a bit low though (they have a daily public service message on TV and radio asking people not to use bittorent until the cables are fixed)

  3. quixote says:

    bloggers are more important than bankers

    Well, I mean, isn’t it obvious? ;-)

  4. Adrian says:

    Ryan Singel at Wired’s Threat Level sheds some light:

    “‘Cable cuts happen on average once every three days,’ Beckert said. There are 25 large ships that do nothing but fix cable cuts and bends, Beckert adds.

    While any severed cable is a “cut” in the parlance of telecom, most often they’re the result of cables rubbing against sea floor rocks, eventually cutting through the copper shielding and exposing the thin fiber optics inside.”

    http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2008/02/who-cut-the-cab.html

    Of course in terms of one’s ability to be connected to the net, it doesn’t matter whether cables are cut intentionally or through random events.

  5. Hanan Cohen says:

    Suggested reading: Mother Earth Mother Board
    By Neal Stephenson on the creation of the FLAG cable

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.12/ffglass_pr.html

  6. Cos says:

    I’m not yet convinced that there’s anything more unusual happening here than the original two big cuts (that had a significant impact) shining a lot more light & attention on the next few “normal” cuts.

  7. Taolf Sujat says:

    I found a really good guide that has a lot of very detailed pictures and quotes. It might help to answer some of your questions:
    http://www.ilovebonnie.net/2008/02/12/the-submarine-cables-a-complete-guide-to-the-2008-internet-outage/

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