Three undersea cables cut in a week: Just bad luck?

Not one, but three, undersea cables have been cut in the past week!

Flag Telecom's Europe-Asia and the SEA-ME-WE-4 cables were cut 8.3 KM outside of Alexandria at 0800 GMT on the 30th January causing severe disruption to networks around the world. Some reports suggest that the cables were severed by a ship trying to moor off the coast of Egypt in bad weather, but this would seem to be speculation. Neither of the companies who own the fibre optic cables have given an official statement on the cause although the Dubai-based Khaleej Times reported that the damage "was not caused by ships." On-shore video footage of the area is reported to show no ships in the area for twelve hours before or after the break -- dare I read between the lines and ask what about a submarine? As if having two fibre optic backbones taken out wasn't enough, a third was announced ‘cut' at 0559 GMT on the 1st of February. The FALCON cable (also owned by India's Flag Telecom) connects India to several countries in the Persian Gulf. The cut is located 56 KM from Dubai along a segment connecting the United Arab Emirates with Oman.

Needless to say, these three outages wreaked havoc with intercontinental communications. It's reported that Indian Internet users have suffered up to a 60% loss in bandwidth -- that's bad news considering how much outsourced activity is reliant on the Internet and undersea cables to deliver both voice and data services. Following the third break, Omar Sultan, chief executive of Dubai's second largest ISP DU said, "The situation is critical for us in terms of congestion." I know from personal experience that communications in Dubai can be a huge challenge, so I wonder how badly this most recent upset has affected businesses.

While a large majority of networks will have been re-routed by now, the loss of such a large amount of bandwidth is bound to have an effect; after all the traffic has to go somewhere so an increase in congestion is unavoidable. It's most likely that large businesses that have high service level agreements with their network providers will be largely unaffected. Those who will be suffering the most are your average ‘home' Internet users and smaller businesses.

The fact that three of these undersea cables have been lost within such a short amount of time has sparked a lot of talk about the inherent vulnerability of these communication channels that we all take for granted. Many people don't understand how data is moved around the globe and it isn't always apparent just how much we rely on them until there's a problem.

Just how vulnerable to accidents or even terrorist attacks are these central communication channels? Should they be more heavily protected? Can we find more resilient and more cost effective alternatives?