Asia’s Communications System Begins to Return to Normal

As the New Year dawns, Asia’s telecommunications and cable companies appear finally to be making progress in returning the region’s communications structure to normal in the wake of the December 26 earthquake that damaged undersea cables on the sea floor thousands of meters below the surface a few kilometers south of Taiwan.

A spokesman for China Netcom told the Xinhua news agency that five cable repair ships had been dispatched to the area and that two had begun work on the damaged cables, which are nearly 3,400 meters underneath sea. Nonetheless, on December 30, China Netcom’s business had only returned to about a fifth of the normal levels, and China Telecoms, China’s largest telecom operator, said that while its call services had been basically restored, the international Internet circuit had only recovered by about 15 percent and international exit band width was about 60 percent of normal levels, while Internet access to North America is still badly hampered.

Continuing seismic activity in the area is also hampering repair operations.The Boxing Day upheaval on the ocean floor, exactly two years after an earthquake-caused tsunami took the lives of an estimated 230,000 people in Southeast Asia, laid bare the extent and vulnerability of the global communications infrastructure, particularly the relative shallowness of Asia’s communications backbone. The 20mm fiber-optic cables that handle billions of data transmissions across the Pacific Ocean and throughout the region are relatively closely grouped south of Taiwan.

Although Hong Kong’s Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) reported that Internet traffic is returning to normal for the hard-hit territory, a spokesman said it could take until the end of January before the repairs are finally completed. In the meantime, cable traffic is being rerouted onto satellites and other cables.

The depth of the cables meant that submersibles were unable to get down to them. Surface ships must search for them with grappling hooks on a muddy and disrupted seabed, and then pull them up for repair. Because undersea cables carry proportionately more traffic and handle multiple regions – in this case much of Asia – they are far more vulnerable than those based on land, which use multiple pathways.

Taiwan lost almost all of its ability to communicate by telephone to Japan although that has since improved as alternative routes developed. Some 90 percent of capacity to Southeast Asia was wiped out. PCCW, Hong Kong’s primary Internet service provider, said data capacity had been cut in half.

In China, according to China Telecom Corp., the mainland’s largest fixed-line carrier, 97 percent of mainland Internet users had difficulty accessing overseas websites, and 57 percent said their lives and work had been affected.

The amount of traffic that flows through these cables is astonishing. An OFTA spokesman said they handle 90 percent of the cable traffic across the Pacific. Despite Asia's growing importance, the United States still dominates cable routing. Telephone calls from the Middle East to Asia flow through American switching devices on the other side of the planet. James Risen, in his 2006 book "State of War," points out that "in addition to handling telephone calls from, say, Los Angeles to New York, the switches also act as gateways into and out of the United States for international communications. A large volume of purely international calls ‑ calls that do not begin or end in America ‑ also now travel through switches based in the United States.” This so-called transit traffic, Risen notes, has risen dramatically as telecommunications have become globalized. And, for Asia, they must be routed through those slender fiber-optic cables lying on the unstable seabed south of Taiwan.

For websites like Asia Sentinel and many others the effect was dramatic. Hong Kong has only a single Internet gateway coming into the territory, meaning that the attempt to squeeze vast amounts of information through it has resulted in long delays.

As late as Friday, Internet traffic from Hong Kong to overseas was largely inoperative. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) transmissions were taking as long as 45 minutes to arrive at their destination and sometimes simply disappeared. The cost is difficult to estimate. Chunghua Telecom, the dominant Taiwanese telecommunications company, said repair of the cables themselves would probably total NT$50 million.

International banking and other financial transactions, such as currency trading, which depend on instantaneous transmission, were particularly hit hard on Wednesday although trading was light because of the Christmas holidays. Banks and other financial institutions by Thursday had reconfigured their networks to detour around the broken cables via satellite and other undamaged telephone links although the additional traffic on the alternative lines meant increased delays.

India and Philippine call center services were disrupted temporarily, according to BPAP, an umbrella organization for many Filipino outsourcing firms. Lines at Teletech, one of the country's biggest call center companies, were down for about an hour and 20 minutes until communications were restored by switching to the backbone in Singapore. Likewise, data center and online gaming operator Intellectual Properties Venture Group (IPVG) also told that its operations had been disrupted.

Only three months ago, in September, Haruhiko Kuroda, the president of the Asia Development Bank, warned that while “infrastructure gaps have not yet affected the region's overall export and economic performance, the danger signs are there. Inadequate transport and communication infrastructure, uncompetitive transport, logistics and industries, and high fuel costs will all push up the cost of doing business in Asia. Unless action is taken soon, the region may lose its competitive edge”

Although Asia has been developing its infrastructure at breakneck speed, the once poverty-stricken region got off to a slow start after World War II. Korea, which started with relatively underdeveloped power and telecommunications sectors, has experienced the fastest growth, at about 8 percent of Gross Domestic Product annually, according to the International Monetary Fund.

In Taiwan it has sometimes passed 10 percent of GDP.

Nonetheless, said a Hong Kong-based information technology specialist, “It would take a much more cataclysmic event to bring the US and Europe offline; and the Ring of Fire (the chain of volcanoes that ring much of the Pacific Rim) makes the region more susceptible to damage. They don’t have great redundancy here.”

Ironically, inside China itself, domestic Internet traffic is largely unaffected, since it is a domestic system closely guarded by authorities with only limited gateways to the outside world.

Internationally, it was another case. The Internet Traffic Report, a website reporting on worldwide Internet use, reported that “packet loss,” the discarding of data packets in a network when a device is overloaded and cannot accept incoming data, was still total in Shanghai two days after the earthquake. Indonesia was running at 50 percent and Singapore at 75 percent.

Like China, Taiwan was unable to receive any data from outside the country. Earlier in December, Verizon announced that it would spend US$500 million in 2007 to create an undersea optical system directly linking the US with China. Six operators from China, the United States and South Korea are involved in the project.