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Damage to Fourth Undersea Cable Sparks Conspiracy Theories

February 05, 2008

When three undersea cables providing connectivity in the Middle East and westward to Europe and North America were cut last week in the Middle East, the impact was immediate — and significant — as many with connections in the region were shut off from Internet communications. That meant VoIP service, IM, and email were suddenly unavailable. 
 
Now, repair work has begun on one of the three severed cables, with a second repair vessel expected to begin servicing a second line imminently, with hopes that service to the Middle East and Asia would soon be restored.
 
Sunday, however, a fourth cable connecting Qatar and the UAR has also been cut, though apparently for a different reason. The first three, in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf, are said to have been severed by dragging anchors — though various reports claim that explanation has been retracted by the Egyptian Transport Ministry.
 
According to the Ministry’s official report, “The Ministry’s Maritime Transport Committee reviewed footage covering the period of 12 hours before and 12 hours after the cables were cut, and no ships sailed the area The area is also marked on maps as a no-go zone, and it is, therefore, ruled out that the damage to the cables was caused by shipping.”
 
The fourth cable has reportedly been shut down due to power issues, which are expected to take several days to repair.
 
With four cables now having been damaged in a week in the region, and particularly with the latest statement from the Ministry, speculation is running rampant as to whether the damage is a result of international sabotage. Reports claim a variety of sources that might have incapacitated the cables, from the U.S. Secret Service, to Islamic fundamentalists, or other military exercises. Others maintain the damage signifies retribution for the impending opening of the Iranian Oil Bourse, which will allow trading in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, potentially diminishing the value of the dollar.
 
Clearly, the political impact, should the damage be attributed to military or financially motivated activity, poses severe implications, but apart from that, the mere impact on broadband connectivity within the region, and communications capabilities with Europe and North America have already been hampered, causing significant disruption to workflows at many businesses.
 
“This has been an eye-opener for the telecom industry worldwide,” said According to Colonel R.S. Parihar, Secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of India. “Today, the cause of the problem might have been an anchor, but what if it is sabotage tomorrow? These are owned by private operators, and there are no governments or armies protecting these cables.”

Indeed, submarine cables carry nearly all global Internet and phone traffic — largely because it is considerably cheaper that satellite transmission — and further damage, or an inability to effectively repair the already disabled lines, could pose a significant impact on not only the global business community, which has come to rely heavily on IP-based communications.
 
If the damage is, indeed, found to be accidental, the service disruptions, if nothing else, underscore the need to carrier network redundancies, which providers like VSNL (News - Alert) have already taken to heart. VSNL was able to restore service to the majority of its Middle Eastern customers by virtue of its bi-directional backbone, which circles the globe, allowing eastward connectivity, should westward connections go down, as they did this past week.
 
Erik Linask (News - Alert) is Associate Editor of INTERNET TELEPHONY, IMS Magazine, and Unified Communications. Prior to joining TMC (News - Alert), he was Managing Editor at Global Custodian, an international securities services publication. To see more of his articles, please visit Erik Linask’s columnist page.
 
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