Ofta says telecoms operators are not required to give immediate details of cable damage
The government has pledged to improve the system for telecommunications operators to report service failures amid criticism over the slow release of information on this week's internet disruption after the Taiwanese earthquake.
Au Man-ho, director-general of telecoms watchdog Ofta, said that under the existing notification mechanism, operators were not required to make immediate reports about cable damage to the authorities.
Six of the seven main submarine cables linking internet and phone services to the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were damaged following Tuesday's quake.
'Even if one cable is damaged, internet traffic can be diverted to other routes and the effect is quite insignificant. Sometimes, cable faults occur somewhere very distant from Hong Kong,' Mr Au said, adding that he believed the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake was unprecedented.
Defending the delay in making a public announcement, he said: 'Members of the public already know the internet traffic is congested, so it is not meaningful for us to issue a press release telling them something they already know.
'It is more important for us to find out the degree of damage, how much time will be needed to recover the system and the progress of repairs so that we can inform the public.'
Acting financial secretary Stephen Ip Shu-kwan said improving contingency plans and methods for releasing information was the responsibility of all parties.
'I think it is important for the cable operators, internet service providers, the government, Ofta and telecommunications companies to consider what happened and see what we need to do to improve the situation,' he said.
Information technology sector lawmaker Sin Chung-kai said improving the reporting system would not mean amending or creating legislation if the government could negotiate a mandatory notification mechanism through the licensing requirements of internet service providers.
However, Internet Society chairman Charles Mok Nai-kwong warned that it may be difficult to design a suitable mechanism.
'The internet service providers are open to discussion and to working out a better system, but their biggest worry is whether the rules on when to notify will be clear and whether they will be forced to make notifications about every minor outage,' he said. 'It's not so easy to draw that line.'
He said requiring local providers to notify the government would not have helped in the latest crisis, as the providers only had second-hand information from the undersea-cable operators.
'Many of those operators don't have offices in Hong Kong, and those that do, do not have a licensing relationship with Ofta, which may have been why Ofta had such trouble getting information.
'I think the problem had more to do with the government's way of not announcing anything until they had full information.'
Political analyst James Sung Lap-kung said the slow response suggested the government had underestimated the seriousness of the problem and had little sense of political alertness.
'The government's mentality is that they are just a regulator of private businesses, and so they are only responsible for passing on information from the various companies,' he said. 'All they needed was to put out a very simple statement to put people's minds at ease.'