The Internet Trembles

In 1866, the British ship Great Eastern lowered a grappling hook by rope down to the frigid Atlantic Ocean floor far below. Its quarry: a line that had snapped the previous year during one of the first attempts to lay a transatlantic cable connecting the United States with Europe. One hundred and forty years later, repair ships are performing the same task, using essentially the same methods, in the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines. They're trying to snag at least six cables that were damaged in a massive Dec. 26 earthquake off the coast of Taiwan. The mangled cables are out of reach of remotely controlled submersibles often used in such work. By the latest estimates, the task won't be finished until at least mid-February.

While the earliest transatlantic lines bore messages in Morse code, the cables near Taiwan carried 90 percent of East Asia's voice and Internet traffic. A month after the earthquake, services in the region were still not back to their full capacity. The disruption to data traffic underscores how much the virtual world still depends on the low-tech network of physical cables, wires and microwave transmitters that gird the globe--and how vulnerable services migrating to the Internet can be. "We put all our eggs in a small number of baskets," said Geoff Huston, chief scientist at the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre in Brisbane. "And this was the worst possible case of cable snap."

To be sure, the damaged lines aren't affecting most users now, aside from slow connection speeds and a few inaccessible sites. But for a few days after the quake, international phone-service outages and e-mail delays of several hours or more were widespread throughout East and Southeast Asia. Telecom operators quickly rerouted traffic away from the damaged area, beaming voice over satellites and sending e-mails scurrying along alternate routes. Taiwan's Chunghwa Telecom said in some cases Internet data sent from Taiwan to Hong Kong, only some 650 kilometers away, were going through routers in the United States. And Singapore Telecom said its U.S.-bound traffic was taking a detour Down Under--through an undersea cable west of Australia, across Australia from Perth to Sydney and through a southern link across the Pacific--or going west via Europe.

Rerouting alone does not necessarily slow Internet traffic much, experts say, as "packets" of data leap across the globe down the path of least resistance. But Internet service providers and telecoms can send only so much through the pipes at once--particularly if they're all using the same detours. So data back up at the servers run by the sender's ISP, like a traffic jam on a high-way on-ramp, waiting for its turn to fly through the global network. Moreover, satellites aren't a good alternative for Internet data: they can carry only one thousandth the capacity of a typical underseas cable, says Huston. Which is why Hong Kong ISPs were still operating at only 80 percent capacity three weeks after the earthquake, and telecoms in Taiwan and Singapore said that their bandwidth capacity remained below normal.

The disruption was far worse for consumers of "real time" data--online stock quotes, voice calls made over the Internet through services like Skype, and multiplayer online games that chew up bandwidth and require quick responses from fellow "warriors" on the other side of the globe. The Internet was not originally designed for such uses, in which even minor delays or interruptions can sharply degrade service quality. "These are now consumer technologies that users expect will work," said Paul Wilson, APNIC's director general. "If they don't, people will get a lot more stroppy than they used to."

The outage challenges assumptions about the fully wired world to come, in which Internet devices will jabber to each other without the need for human input. It may not be a disaster if your cell phone can't get through to your car, muses Hong Kong Internet pioneer Pindar Wong, but what if your pacemaker gets cut off from your doctor's computer across the Pacific? It's not clear how devices, rather than generally tolerant human beings, would deal with delays and outages. "This was a wake-up call," says Wong. "Are we building on solid foundations, or are we building on quicksand?" Asian telecoms say they'll boost satellite capacity and buy more cables to make their infrastructure more robust. But analysts are skeptical that they'll make the needed investments. Without them, the Internet of tomorrow is likely to remain vulnerable to the next quake.

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