Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Fifth undersea cable cut: Coincidence?

When I received an e-mail from my father a couple of weeks ago that a ship off the coast of Egypt had severed a fiber-optic undersea cable that carried Internet traffic between Europe, Africa, and Asia, I was, of course, curious to learn that it actually was the second cable being damaged in the area and that it already had a measurable effect on Internet traffic for some organizations: my father is editor-in-chief for Monatshefte Chemie (Chemical Monthly), and he told me that he had already noticed that Chemical Monthly was no longer receiving articles, submissions, or reviews from China, India, Iran, and Egypt.

Imagine my surprise, when I learned last week that a third cable was affected in the region. I was not the only one starting to think that a pattern might emerge here - especially after it became clear that no ships were in the area, which is clearly marked on charts as being a no-anchoring zone.

Even with three cables damaged there is still some value in applying reasonable doubt, and assuming that a natural phenomenon, increased dragging of anchors due to storms in the area, or other accidents might have been contributing factors.
Today, however, the count increased again, as we are learning that a fourth and fifth cable in the region have been damaged. The Khaleej Times has reported the following summary of all the cables involved in the outage:

"A total of five cables being operated by two submarine cable operators have been damaged with a fault in each.

These are SeaMeWe-4 (South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-4) near Penang, Malaysia, the FLAG Europe-Asia near Alexandria, FLAG near the Dubai coast, FALCON near Bandar Abbas in Iran and SeaMeWe-4, also near Alexandria."

For the locations of these undersea cables please see the map on the Engadget blog today, which also lists the date of the respective cuts that range from January 23 until today. FLAG also has an update on the status of their two cables on their website and a map showing the FALCON cable locations.

However, it appears that initial reports on Slashdot today that these outages have cut Iran entirely off the Internet are exaggerated and do not appear to be true.

So where does that leave us: the loss of five cables in just two weeks is an awful lot to be a coincidence. As a result, there is an explosion of conspiracy theories trying to explain this, and you can find some of them in the comments on Bruce Schneier's blog. However, as Robert Graham points out in the Errata Security blog today, there isn't necessarily a pattern here, because normally undersea cable outages are not reported widely, so what we are seeing might still be a normal statistical fluke.

So it remains to be seen over the next several days what is behind these cable failures, as we learn more about the repair of these cuts and get reports on what factors might have been contributed to the damage in the first place. Stay tuned to your favorite blog, news website, or check out TechMeme.

One thing is clear, however: the undersea cables are an important part of our global Internet infrastructure, as we are carrying about 90% of the international traffic over these fiber-optic submarine routes, whereas satellites account for just 10%. Nonetheless, traffic is presently being rerouted around those damaged areas and frequently has to take longer routes - sometimes via the US - resulting in lower connectivity ratings on the Internet Traffic Report.

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