Asia’s Earthquake-inspired internet blackout

On December 26, two years exactly after the earthquake-inspired tsunami that took the lives of an estimated 230,000 people in Southeast Asia, the sea floor 13 kilometers off southern Taiwan gave way, generating a temblor that reached 7.1 on the Richter Scale. The quake did relatively little damage, except to some of the 18 undersea fiber-optic cables, each less than 20 millimeters in diameter, that handle billions of data transmissions across the Pacific Ocean and throughout the region. Two people died in the quake and about 40 were injured.

The spreading effect on the vast region’s communications infrastructure, however, has been devastating, laying bare both the extent and vulnerability of the global communications network and once again emphasizing the relative shallowness of Asia’s infrastructure. Despite the fact that newspaper and wire service outlets were reporting on Dec, 29 that services were returning to normal, communications, particularly between Hong kong and the rest of the world, are a mess. At this point nobody seems to know how long it will take to restore normal service. Estimates go as long as three weeks.

Verizon, the international communications giant which is responsible for some of the cables, said it could take as long as five days to even get a cable ship into the earthquake region. The cables themselves are about 3,400 meters below the ocean floor, meaning submersibles can’t get to them. Surface ships must search for them with grappling hooks on a muddy and disrupted sea bed, then pull them up to repair them. The amount of traffic that flows through these cables is astonishing. Despite Asia's growing importance, it is really the United States that dominates these cables. Telephone calls from the Middle East to Asia flow through American switching devices although both are 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 mbased in the United States. This so-called transit traffic, Risen points out, has risen dramatically as the world's telecommunication system has become increasingly globalized. And, for Asia, they must be routed through those slender fibre-optic cables lying on the unstable seabed south of Taiwan.

For publications like Asia Sentinel and many others, which exist only online, the effect has meant a flat inability to operate. 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. Bankers complained to the media that they were unable to execute trades because of their inability to secure verbal approval from overseas clients. Most dealing rooms were trading lightly because of the Christmas holidays. Nonetheless, bond and equity traders, who depend on the flow of real-time data, said they were hampered by the disruptions. India and Philippines 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 INQUIRER.NET 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 then-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.”

Kuroda’s concerns, in a speech in Jakarta, came true with devastating force on Boxing Day. Virtually all the undersea cables that handle Asian data transmission traffic run in a narrow band through the Taiwan region, meaning that from China across Southeast Asia, the effect of the quake has been massive. 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 paths.

The cables handle traffic between China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, the US and Taiwan. Taiwan lost almost all of its ability to communicate by telephone to Japan. Some 90 percent of capacity to Southeast Asia was wiped out. Two days later, Hong Kong was still largely without Internet service, leaving those with a vital need for the web with no ability to communicate. PCCW, the territory’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.

While the largest amount of communications infrastructure goes through Taiwan a second set of lines goes out of Singapore, through Australia and on to the US. That set of lines is still up, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the amount of traffic switched to it.

“Because everybody is competing for the available bandwidth, there is congestion now on the remaining bandwidth,” a Singapore telecommunications spokesman told a local newspaper.

Ironically, inside China itself, domestic traffic is largely unaffected, since it is a domestic system closely guarded by authorities. Given China’s closely monitored information system, there is no international access 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.