Asia Mends Data Cables, Plans Patches for Sea Grid

Ships set sail Friday to mend cables damaged by earthquakes off Taiwan that cut communications across Asia, while companies found new routes for their data to flow to prevent another disruption.

Service was back to normal on the last business day of the year with telecomm companies securing new routes via land and satellite to restore communication -- ending outages that affected banks and brokerages from Seoul to Sydney.

In the wake of the crisis, many were wondering how to keep communication flowing in a world where submarine cables are the lifeblood of telecommunications and where one glitch can cause global problems.

Communications companies said it might be time to bolster an undersea network that was built during the telecomm boom of the late 1990s but where construction has since mostly been dormant.

Financial service companies said they would start the new year by tweaking their contingency plans with the lessons learned from the outage.

An official at KT Corp., South Korea's top fixed line and broadband provider, said construction of submarine cable lines had mostly stalled since about 2000 when the air starting leaking out of the telecomm bubble. "Since then there had been little need to build more, until recently," the official said, adding that a new line would be built to connect a booming China with the United States, and this could pave the way for renewed construction.

Standard Chartered said in a research note the quake had revealed the increased fragility of financial markets in Asia, where economies rely heavily on technology and Internet firms to spur growth. "Losses in telecomm revenue are estimated at hundreds of million of dollars,
depending on how quickly the cables are repaired and normal traffic restored," it said. "All in all, the impact should be low, but the risks nevertheless warrant attention."

Laying The Lines

Analysts said the disruption showed that most of the region's cable networks run along earthquake-prone geographic zones. "People will start to say we can't let this happen again," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Washington D.C.-based telecomm consultant Communications
Networks Architects. "The issue here is parallelism. You've really got to have multiple paths.
You can't lay all the cables in the same place."

Dzubeck added that the Internet bust in 2001 had hit expensive plans by various companies to lay undersea cables along new paths that were less likely to be affected by earthquakes.

Earthquakes occur frequently around Taiwan and Japan, which lie on a seismically active stretch of the Pacific basin.

Undersea fiber-optic cables account for more than 95% of international telecommunications thanks to their strength, capacity and connection quality, according to South Korean provider KT Submarine Corp.

One alternative would be satellites, which are costlier and do not provide as much capacity or quality of transmission as fiber-optic cables, analysts said. Just last week, Verizon Communications and five Asian companies agreed to invest $500 million to build a new cable network to directly link China and the U.S..

Better Than Pigeons

Submarine cables have been around for about 150 years, with some of the first lines being a well-insulated copper wire running under the English Channel. One alternative used at the time to transmit data was the carrier pigeon.

Now the cables hold a mass of tightly packed, flexible glass lines that can handle millions of telephone calls, which means that any damage can lead to major disruptions.

A country such as South Korea, the world's 11th largest economy, has ten main undersea cables connecting it to the world, said KT Corp. Seven of them were damaged by the quake.

India was highly vulnerable from damage to undersea cable links because it receives 80% to 90% of its bandwidth from the undersea network, industry officials said.

And neighboring Pakistan's sole undersea fiber-optic cable link with the outside world developed a serious fault in June 2005, virtually crippling data feeds, including the Internet, for 11 days.

"Internet service providers should think like bus companies," said Mohamed Shahril Tarmizi, executive director at Malaysian technology consulting company BinaFikir. "Instead of using just one route to get to a destination, it's more useful to have many routes."