Internet Problems Mount for Asia/Europe Connection

For the third time this week, a vital cable routing Internet service between Europe and Asia has been severed. On Wednesday, two lines running under the Mediterranean Sea were cut off the coast of Egypt, most likely by anchors dropped by mooring ships. And today, a third high-capacity cable off the coast of Dubai has been damaged, also likely caused by ship activity. The combined disruptions have put a severe strain on network services across the Middle East and South Asia, according to numerous media accounts.

In a report today, BBC News relates that the latest blow to the regions came when the FALCON undersea cable, operated by U.K.-based FLAG Telecom, was severed 56 kilometers from Dubai in the Persian Gulf. It was the second major underwater accident for the FLAG (Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe) system in less than 48 hours. Two days earlier, its FLAG Europe-Asia cable was sliced 8.3 km at sea from Alexandria, Egypt.

Also damaged at the time of the first accident, the SEA-ME-WE 4 (South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4) cable line, running parallel to FLAG Europe-Asia lost service. SEA-ME-WE 4 is operated by a consortium of companies throughout Europe, Africa, and Southern and Southeast Asia. Both fiber-optic systems connect providers and users from Western Europe to Eastern Asia directly.

A communications analyst, Eric Schoonover of the research firm TeleGeography, told CNN News that Wednesday's accident was the more serious of the two, according to a late-breaking report. He noted that SEA-ME-WE 4 and FLAG Europe-Asia carry about three-fourths of the online service available between Europe and the Middle East. The FALCON system that was interrupted earlier today operates on a ring that makes much of its capacity redundant in cases of physical damage to individual cables.

Still, users throughout this populous portion of the world were stymied by the combined outages. Angry customers voiced strong opinions on the matter to various news outlets throughout the affected regions.

"Everyone is trying to absorb the shock," Joseph Metry, a network supervisor at Orascom Telecom Holding SAE, one of the largest phone companies in the Middle East and North Africa, said in a Times of London account.

On its Web site (which is operating normally), FLAG Telecom stated that a repair ship is expected to arrive at the site of the FLAG Europe-Asia accident in four days and that it expects the damage will be repaired "within a week thereof." As for FALCON, the company said, "[A] repair ship has been notified and [is] expected to arrive at the site in [the] next few days."

Meanwhile, network traffic cut off by the damaged cables is slowly being re-routed through other systems (such as the older SEA-ME-WE 3 cable) and connectivity has begun to pick up again.

Egypt's minister of Communications and Information Technology, Tarek Kamil, said he expects his nation's infrastructure will suffer over the days ahead but will gradually improve. "However, it's not before ten days until the Internet service returns to its normal performance," Kamil told the state Al-Ahram newspaper.

The remarkable coincidence of losing three major communications channels in such short order surely tells us much about how the world has been connected from any point on the globe to another in a relatively brief amount of time--and how much we take this for granted. While such robust connectivity has served to bring us together, its fragility also serves to remind us that we are still bound by circumstances beyond our control. Increasingly, this is becoming a lesson experienced by all the people of our planet.


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