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.