Primitive though Morse may be, the world may want to keep it alive, if only as a backup when global communications networks crashas they did spectacularly on Dec. 26 when an earthquake off Taiwan's coast damaged seven undersea fiber-optic cables that handle some 90% of phone calls and data traffic in the region. Millions of homes and businesses across Asia were left without Internet access, e-mail and international phone connections. Financial markets were interrupted. And those lucky enough to connect to overseas websites experienced exasperatingly sluggish data-transfer speeds. While most services have been at least partially restored, a flotilla of repair vessels is expected to be working on the knocked-out cables for up to four weeks before networks are back to normal.
Communications blackouts aren't uncommonin 2005, for example, Pakistan was cut off from the Internet for 12 days after a fishing boat accidentally snagged its main international connection; sharks have even been blamed for biting into lightly armored lines. But outages on the scale of this Asia-wide meltdown aren't supposed to happen. And with the march of globalization, companies are more dependent than ever on global networks, which makes the threat of communications paralysis particularly unsettling. So what can be done to prevent future blackouts?
The answer: not muchat least not immediately. In theory, the global Internet is highly resistant to catastrophic failure because it's a mesh of interconnected smaller networks, all providing alternative data pathways should any single link fail. Indeed, Asia's abundant data capacity and plentiful circuitsa legacy of rampant overbuilding of undersea cable during the tech boomensured that most traffic was quickly rerouted after the quake, restoring crucial services such as phone connections. Some of the overflow was also handled by satellite systems, which are normally too costly and lack the bandwidth of terrestrial networks.
But the Internet as it exists today is far from shockproof. It has been built by independent consortia of private telecom companies and investors, and network design has been driven by economics. Reliability is important, of course, but intercontinental cable systems can cost billions of dollars, so they tend to connect to countries where demand is greatest and they often lack costly parallel backup circuits that would be underused most of the time. Vulnerabilities exist, and the recent quake found a chink in the armor. It struck in the Luzon Strait south of Taiwan, an area that has an unusual concentration of major undersea cables. "It's quite an exceptional event to have so many cables tear at once," says Gary Chan, a computer-engineering professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. But Taiwan is a major commercial center situated between South and North Asia, so dozens of the links run to or near the island.
While the cables are at least 20 km apart, the magnitude 6.7 quake was powerful enough to shake or rupture a 300-km-long area of seabed. Given this temblor's force, says Ha Yung-kuen, acting director-general of Hong Kong's Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA), "you can [imagine] the damage it would make to submarine cables. Maybe mountains become valleys, and valleys become mountains."
This month, says Ha, organizations like OFTA will hold discussions with telecom companies about faster rerouting procedures in the event of future cable failures. But it's up to the companies that own and lease the networks to iron out emergency procedures, which are complicated by contractual obligations and pricing agreements. The best solution, says Chan, is the construction of more pathways. China's Internet population alone increased by 30% last year; at current growth rates, China is projected to reach maximum capacity on its current networks by 2008. More cable networks are in the works. One consortium plans to invest $500 million to lay the first transpacific cable directly linking China and the U.S., while another is planning a link between Southeast Asia and the U.S., bypassing Taiwan. Technology is also being developed for "smart" networks that could automatically allocate bandwidth where needed, making disaster recovery fasterbut all operators would need to adopt it.
In the meantime, it's impossible to rule out more catastrophic network failures. Better keep that Morse code guide handy.
With reporting by Tim Kindseth, Ling Woo Liu and Peter Ritter / Hong Kong