First person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 January, 2007, 12:00am


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The internet chaos of the past fortnight is a wake-up call for businesses to be better prepared for crises and for some casual users to consider whether they spend too much time online, says Charles Mok Nai-kwong, Hong Kong chairman of the US-based Internet Society.

'What has happened over the past fortnight with internet services in Hong Kong has forced quite a few people to do things differently. It has also caused some people quite a bit of anxiety.

At work, it is very difficult to avoid reliance on the internet. There is no way to replace it. But some of the people making the biggest complaints on forums or bulletin boards are more or less casual users, logging on to the game servers.

There are people who should think about whether they can plan their life differently. That's not to say they shouldn't be playing internet games or exchanging instant messages with strangers. But if for some reason they can't use the internet for a while and they just sit there complaining, maybe there are other things they should think about doing.

This ought to be a wake-up call to make them realise there are other things to do in life.

For businesses, if you cannot manage to do your work as you did before, then you really have to consider why. Why is that happening? What ISP services are you using? Why are they more affected than other people? The same goes for the internet service providers. Some of them seem to be affected more than others.

Businesses can't just rely on the providers and say, 'You have to provide a better service next time'. They have to accept responsibility and do their planning better.

We do have backup systems, but these are just backup. It is impossible economically or operationally for any backup system to be expected to cope at 100 per cent of previous capacity.

Hong Kong is an open market, but satellite cannot replace undersea cabling, not just because of cost but because we need fibre-optic cables for a lot of the applications we rely on, including phone calls.

Some people talk about land cables, but these would involve a lot of territorial and political issues, and would be even more unstable and prone to man-made disasters such as terrorism.

Routing cables in other directions might be feasible, but there are reasons why the cables go where they are going. They pass through a lot of major markets. You can't route cables where there are no people.

And, wherever you go, there are earthquakes. It just happened to be in that particular place at that time. After something like this happens, it's easy to say, 'Why didn't you do that?' But even with the best planning, nature has a way of letting us know it is more powerful.

Given all that, we probably should still consider whether we should have better diversity in future. It is an economic problem and it can't be solved overnight. I don't think the solution is going to be to double or triple the price we are paying for the internet now. On the other hand, we cannot take it for granted that we enjoy these services and expect them to always be 200 per cent foolproof.

The cables that are being repaired are not making money. Since the dotcom boom, the companies that set up these cables have gone bankrupt or restructured, as have the companies doing the repairs have gone bankrupt.

The industry is suffering because of competition and low prices. We have to try to come up with a better way to make the industry sustainable. The industry and governments need to work together on this.

We are not talking about a process that will take a couple of months. We are talking about decades of planning.

What we have learned in the past fortnight is that some of the critical infrastructure that we depend on is so vulnerable. We have all this infrastructure, and yet we don't really have control over it. We have been enjoying the advances in applications and lower prices and we have taken them for granted.

Now we should step back and think about how we can make it sustainable.