How shark attacks, shipwrecks, and earthquakes threaten global communications

Manmade and natural threats have damaged undersea fiber optic cables connecting ASEAN countries as well as Guam, Australia, and the United States, causing issues for some internet users.

Image: iStockphoto/Pieter De Pauw

On February 29th, network issues in Singapore and Malaysia were discovered, causing headaches for network administrators tasked with rerouting traffic and end users from service degradation. The culprit behind the issue was damage to the Asia Submarine-cable Express (ASE) system, which connects Japan to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore.

In a status report regarding the outage, cloud service provider Linode stated that "several undersea cables in the Asia Pacific region experienced major fiber cuts," indicating that either ASE has multiple cuts, or systems other than ASE were affected.

SEE: Power checklist: Building your disaster recovery plan template (Tech Pro Research)

The time needed to repair the issue is also a concern. Telekom Malaysia, which holds a one-third stake in the ASE consortium, indicated in a statement that repairs will not begin for three weeks:

The restoration works requires concerted efforts of all consortium members, and is scheduled to begin on 25 March and is expected to be completed on 31 March 2016. However, we wish to highlight that the restoration works will be subject to weather and sea conditions, identification of the actual location of the fault and the challenges ahead, working at great sea depths and pressure.

This issue comes after a similar outage of the PIPE Pacific Cable 1 (PPC-1) system connecting Australia to Guam. This outage—which occurred on February 5—only began its repair process on March 2, as the repair ship which was contractacted to fix the cable was already in use to repair a break in a Basslink cable connecting Victoria to Tasmania. While undoubtedly a victim of poor timing, the cable faults have not resulted in a complete service outage, though performance has noticeably degraded.

Why is this happening?

Considering the increased seismic activity in the area, recently punctuated by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake off Indonesia on March 2 (after the issues with ASE were reported), it would not be an unreasonable conclusion to assume that earthquakes are the culprit behind the latest outages. According to a report in Oceanography (PDF), approximately 150-200 fiber optic cable faults occur per year, with geological hazards averaging less than 10% of these cases.

Seismic activity has caused substantial problems for optical cables in the past. The 2011 Tōhoku Japan earthquake and tsunami resulted in damage to six different cable systems, which rendered Japanese ISP KDDI completely unable to send signals between the United States and Japan for some time thereafter. Fortunately, while recent seismic activity is not of the strength, nor has it brought with it the destruction of the Tōhoku earthquake, the relative increase in seismic activity is not an unlikely culprit.

Aside from seismic activity, and cargo ship accidents, which the aforementioned report cited as being the culprit of up to 75% of fiber optic cable faults, the culprit behind the recent outages could be marine life. The issue is pervasive enough that Google wraps their cables in a kevlar-like material to avoid damage from sharks attempting to take a bite from the bundle—a phenomenon for which Google helpfully provided video evidence of.

Who do these outages impact?

Primarily, these outages affect users and organizations in the countries that the affected cable systems serve. Users outside of those countries trying to connect to systems located in those countries—likely an altogether rare event for average internet users in the United States, though manufacturing facilities of American companies are often located in the affected area—are likely to experience degraded speeds for the duration of the outage.

SEE: How Microsoft briefly ran Azure from an undersea datacenter (ZDNet)

For areas with uncertain connectivity—in seismically active regions with a propensity for fiber optic cable faults—the benefits of cloud adoption may be somewhat lessened as a sudden outage (or loss of capacity) can significantly impede the workflow of a given organization.

What's your view?

Are you personally affected by these cable faults? Do you think the impact of these outages underlies a need for more fiber? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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    James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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