Internet outages raise terror fears

Fiona Chau
10 Mar 2008

The security of international submarine cable networks has been called into question once again after cable cuts in the Mediterranean Sea severely disrupted internet and phone services between Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

In a dubious coincidence, four separate undersea cables - including the Flag Europe-Asia and the SeaMeWe-4 cables (owned by a consortium of 15 cable carriers) - were cut within the same week in late January and early February.

According to TeleGeography Research, the damage to FEA and SeaMeWe-4 were the most significant because the two cables, with 620 Gbps in capacity, are the prime direct links between Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. The outage on these two systems reduced the capacity between Europe and Middle East by 76%.

The outages were less severe than the devastating cable breakdowns caused by the Taiwan earthquake in December 2006, which snapped seven undersea cables serving Asia. However, the damage raises increased concerns about the threat of sabotage of submarine cable systems, which carry over 95% of the world's cross-border internet and telephone traffic.

It has not been made clear what caused some of the cable breaks and whether the separate events were related. There has been speculation that so many cable cuts over such a short period were too much of a coincidence and that sabotage must have been involved. This came as an AFP newswire report quoted an ITU official as saying that the damage could have been due to an act of sabotage.

'We do not want to pre-empt the results of ongoing investigations, but we do not rule out that a deliberate act of sabotage caused the damage to the undersea cables,' said Sami Al-Murshed, the UN agency's head of development. 'Some experts doubt the prevailing view that the cables were cut by accident, especially as the cables lie at great depths under the sea and are not passed over by ships.'

While Reliance Flag, formerly Flag Telecom, revealed that the cut to its Falcon Cable was caused by an abandoned ship anchor, mystery shrouds what caused the other three reported damage.

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