Internet failure hits two continents

January 31, 2008 7:32:11 AM PST
India's lucrative outsourcing industry struggled Thursday to overcome Internet slowdowns and outages after cuts in two undersea cables sliced the country's bandwidth in half. The disruption -- which has hit a swath of users from Egypt to Bangladesh -- began to affect much of the Middle East on Wednesday, when outages caused a slowdown in traffic on Dubai's stock exchange.

Such large-scale disruptions are rare but not unknown. East Asia suffered nearly two months of outages and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in December 2006.

The cables, which lie off the coast of Egypt in the Mediterranean, were snapped as the working day was ending in India on Wednesday and the impact was not immediately apparent.

But by Thursday, the Internet was sluggish across the country with some users unable to connect at all and others frustrated by spotty service. The Internet Service Providers' Association of India said the country had lost half its bandwidth.

Officials said it could take a week or more to fix the cables, apparently cut north of the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, as they scrambled to reroute traffic to satellites and through Asia.

A top Egyptian telecommunications official said that workers wouldn't know for sure what caused the cuts until they are able to get repair ships and divers to the area, though rumors suggested a ship's anchor was to blame. The official in Egypt's Ministry of Communications and Information Technology asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Rough weather and seas prevented repair ships from getting to the site Wednesday, the official said -- and it was unclear how soon they could get there.

Even once the repair workers arrive at the site, it could take as long as a week to repair the cable, the official said.

With little hope of immediate relief, Indian companies that rely on the Internet to do business with or for clients in the United States and Europe were just trying to get by.

"The Internet service has been close to nonexistent. Most of our work ... consultation with our overseas customers, is done online. The Internet is our main business tool," said Praveen Mathur, an executive at Streit India Advisory Services Pvt. Ltd., an equity investment consulting firm that's based in New Delhi and has clients in the United States and Canada.

The firm's business, he said, would "definitely be affected" if the outage took a long time to fix.

Rajesh Chharia, president of Internet Service Providers' Association, said some companies were rerouting their service through cables running under the Pacific, but that there was no way to immediately restore all the lost bandwidth.

"The companies that serve the (U.S.) East coast and (Britain) are worst affected. The delay is very bad in some cases," he told The Associated Press. "They have to arrange backup plans or they have to accept the poor quality for the time being until the fiber is restored."

Big Indian outsourcing companies, such as Infosys and Wipro, said they were still trying to determine what, if any, disruptions to their work had taken place. Other major foreign companies with significant back-office or technology development operations in India, like IBM Corp. and Intel Corp, said they, too, were trying to assess the impact.

Much of the Middle East continued to feel the impact of the cuts on Thursday.

TeleGeography, a U.S. research group that tracks submarine cables around the world, said the disruption reduced the amount of available capacity on the route from the Mideast to Europe by 75 percent.

Like those in India, many providers in the region will have to reroute their traffic around the globe, to Southeast Asia and across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the firm said.

Alan Mauldin, research chief at the Washington-based group, said similar outages in the future could be averted by new cable construction -- though even multiple cables could not guarantee against outages.

An official at the Dubai International Mercantile Exchange, Gerald David, said trading Thursday morning resumed normally following the Wednesday slowdown after which backup systems kicked in.

Saudi Telecom Company did not answer calls on Thursday, a day off in the kingdom, but the English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News said Saudi Telecom had lost more than 50 percent of its international online connectivity due to the problem.

Israel was unaffected by the outages because its Internet traffic is connected to Europe through a different undersea cable. Lebanon and Iraq were also operating normally, and most governments in the Middle East seemed to be unaffected, apparently because they had switched to backup satellite systems.