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Fragile & expendable, they help tie the world

Fragile & expendable, they help tie the world
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First Published: Sat, Feb 02 2008. 12 52 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Feb 02 2008. 12 52 AM IST
New York: The lines that tie the globe together by carrying phone calls and Internet traffic are just 1.68cm thick where they lie on the ocean floor. The foundation for a connected world seems quite fragile, an impression reinforced this week when a break in two cables in the Mediterranean Sea disrupted communications across West Asia and into India and neighbouring nations.
A repair ship is expected to arrive on Tuesday, UK-based FLAG Telecom said in an email on Friday. The repair work will likely be completed in a week of the ship’s arrival.
Yet, the network itself is fairly resilient. In fact, cables are broken all the time, usually by fishing lines and ship anchors, and few of us notice. It takes a confluence of factors for a cable break to cause an outage.
“Most telecom companies have capacity at multiple systems, so if one goes out, they simply reroute to a different system,” said Stephan Beckert, analyst at research firm TeleGeography in Washington. “It’s just that in this case, both the main route and the backup route got cut for a lot of companies.”
The two cables—FLAG Europe Asia and SEA-ME-WE 4—were cut on the ocean floor just north of Alexandria, Egypt.
By an accident of geography and global politics, Egypt is a choke point in the global communications network, just as it is with global shipping. The reasons are same: The country touches both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, which flows into the India Ocean.
The slim fibre optic cables are much like ships, in that they’re the cheapest way for carrying things over long distances. Pulling cable overland is much more expensive and requires negotiation with landowners and governments.
So, fibre optic cables that go from Europe to India take the sea route via Egypt’s Suez Canal, just as ships do.
Another Mediterranean cable makes land not far away, in Israel.
But there’s no cable overland from Israel into Jordan and to the Persian Gulf, which could have provided a redundant connection for the Gulf states and India. Going overland would have been more expensive and politically difficult—Israel and Arab countries would have to cooperate.
There is also no route that goes through Russia, Iran and Pakistan to India. The terrain is rugged, Pakistan is politically unstable, and India and Pakistan are not on good terms.
With two of the three cables passing through Suez cut, traffic from West Asia and India intended for Europe was forced to route eastward, around most of the globe.
The main route goes through Japan and the US, crossing both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. According to Beckert, this is normally the cheap way to go for Indian traffic, since capacity is high. The other route from India to Europe goes over China into Russia.
Pakinam Amer in Cairo contributed to this story.
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First Published: Sat, Feb 02 2008. 12 52 AM IST