Vulnerability of telecoms links must be addressed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2007, 12:00am

A week after an earthquake off the coast of Taiwan disrupted internet traffic in the region, life for users of cyberspace has not returned to normal, but nor has it been as unbearable as initially feared. Overseas calls to most places and instant messaging systems have largely been restored, although browsing of overseas websites and e-mails to foreign countries remain slow.

Luckily, the disruption came at a time when many parts of the developed world were closed for the Christmas and New Year holidays. However, its full impact will only be revealed today, when most people return to work and offices become fully functional again.

Repairs to undersea cables damaged in the earthquake have been delayed by technical problems and bad weather. The cables are now not expected to be back in service until the end of this month. Last night, the Office of the Telecommunications Authority disclosed that access to data services through the internet remained slow. The public are advised to cut down on non-essential use of the internet.

It is to be hoped that our usually efficient telecommunications links will be able to provide an acceptable level of service to keep us connected to the outside world. Even so, there is no question that the authorities should take serious steps to map out contingency plans to ensure our telecoms companies have sufficient back-up capabilities.

This major disruption has shown that the region's information infrastructure is highly vulnerable. Technically, internet traffic can be directed into various networks via terrestrial and submarine cables or by satellite. However, experts have noted that the region has fewer cables linking its power centres. Nor are alternative satellite links readily available.

In the wake of the disruption caused by the earthquake, a large share of traffic that cannot transit the damaged submarine cables has been rerouted as an emergency measure to servers in the United States. In practice, traffic is directed to the state of Virginia, which has a large concentration of root routers and whose maritime terminals account for about 50 per cent of the world traffic.

This is a highly unsatisfactory situation for Asia, where internet traffic is growing at a terrific rate. On the mainland, for example, the number of internet users already tops 123 million, but the growth potential remains huge for a country that has 1.3 billion people. Already, telecoms companies are laying more cables to meet projected demand. But they alone decide the provision of back-up capacities.

Many countries already regard their own information infrastructures as strategic. But their shared concern to remain connected with one another has not been complemented by a regional protocol to ensure the infrastructure's reliability. It is time governments in the region addressed such an important issue.