A simple accident involving a ship’s anchor wrecked internet access for a huge slice of the world today.
Experts said the chaos caused by the severing of just two undersea cables pointed to the system’s vulnerability to terrorist or other attacks.
After the cables were cut by the anchor off Egypt’s coast, India woke to discover its network in chaos. Widespread service failures also hampered a wide swathe of the Middle East.
Officials said it could take a week or more to fix the cables, in part because of bad weather. Several countries were struggling to reroute traffic to satellites and to other cables through Asia.
In all, users in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain were affected.
Israel escaped because its internet traffic is connected to Europe through a different undersea cable, and Lebanon and Iraq were also operating normally.
The biggest impact to the rest of the world could come from the loss of service across India where many Western companies have operations including customer service call centres.
Such large-scale disruptions are rare but not unknown. East Asia suffered nearly two months of failures and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in December 2006.
So far, most governments in the region appeared to be operating normally, apparently because they had switched to backup satellite systems. However, the failures caused a slowdown in traffic on Dubai’s stock exchange .
The president of the Internet Service Providers’ Association of India, Rajesh Chharia, said companies that serve the East Coast of the US and Britain had been badly hit.
“The companies that serve the (US) East coast and the UK are worst affected. The delay is very bad in some cases,” he said.
“They have to arrange backup plans or they have to accept the poor quality for the time being until the cable is restored.
Mr Chharia said some companies were rerouting their service through the Pacific route, bypassing the disrupted cables. He said roughly 50% of the country’s bandwidth had been affected.
It appeared the cables had been cut north of the port city of Alexandria and reports in Egypt said a ship’s anchor had cut them.
Rough weather and seas have prevented repair ships from getting to the site.
Once they get there it could take as much as a week to repair the cable, the official said.
Mustafa Alani, head of security and terrorism department at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, said the outage should be a “wake-up call” for governments and professionals to divert more resources to protect vital infrastructure.
“This shows how easy it would be to attack” vital networks, such as internet, mobile phones,he said. He was referring to the internet, mobile phone, electronic banking and government services.
Mr Alani said the damage was not terrorism, but it could have been. “When it comes to great technology, it’s not about building it, it’s how to protect it,” he added.