- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

NEW DELHI (AP) — At least for a while, the World Wide Web wasn’t so worldwide.

Two cables that carry Internet traffic deep under the Mediterranean Sea snapped, disrupting service yesterday across a swath of Asia and the Middle East.

India took one of the biggest hits, and the damage from its slowdowns and outages rippled to some U.S. and European companies that rely on its outsourcing industry to handle customer-service calls and other operations.

“There’s definitely been a slowdown,” said Anurag Kuthiala, a system engineer at the New Delhi office of Symantec Corp., a security software maker based in California. “We’re able to work, but the system is very slow.”

Although disruptions to U.S. firms were not widespread, the outage raised questions about the vulnerability of the infrastructure of the Internet. One analyst called it a “wake-up call.”

Many larger U.S. companies said the effect was minimal, partly because the data routes that head east from Asia, under the Pacific Ocean, were intact.

Citigroup spokesman Samuel Wang said some of his company’s customer-service system was affected, but minimally.

Intel Corp. said its Indian operation, which employs about 3,000 people and is focused on research and development, has many safeguards built into its system.

The cables, which lie undersea north of the Egyptian port of Alexandria, were snapped Wednesday just as the workday was ending in India, so the full impact was not apparent until yesterday.

Speculation arose that a ship’s anchor might be to blame. The two cables are in proximity.

Egyptian officials said initial attempts to reach the cables were stymied by poor weather. Repairs could take a week once workers arrive at the site, and engineers were scrambling to reroute traffic to satellites and to other cables.

The Egyptian minister of communications and information technology said Internet service in that country had been restored to about 45 percent and would be up to 80 percent by today, the state news agency reported.

The snapped cables — which lie on the seafloor and at some points are no thicker than a human thumb — caused problems across an area thousands of miles wide.

Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain all reported trouble.

In India, which earns billions of dollars a year from outsourcing, the loss of Internet access was potentially disastrous. The Internet Service Providers Association of India said the country had lost half its capacity.

TeleGeography, a U.S. research group that tracks submarine cables, said the disruption cut capacity by 75 percent on the route from the Middle East to Europe.

Such large-scale disruptions are rare but not unprecedented. East Asia suffered nearly two months of outages and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in 2006.

In the Middle East, outages caused a slowdown in traffic on Dubai”s stock exchange late Wednesday. The exchange was back up yesterday, but many Middle Eastern businesses were still experiencing difficulties.

“The system is a bit slow today, but we have not experienced a total breakdown,” said Sudhir Kumar Shetty, who runs Abu Dhabi”s UAE Exchange, a money-transfer firm.

UAE Exchange faces a major test today, the first day of the month, when thousands of foreign workers are expected to descend on the company”s 53 branches to send money home.

In India, the Internet was sluggish, with some users unable to connect at all and others left frustrated by spotty service.

“Telecom and bandwidth are the bedrocks of the [information technology] industry,” said Ajit Ranade, the chief economist at the Aditya Birla Group, an international manufacturing and services company. “If something happens to the bedrock, obviously the IT industry will suffer.”

Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, said the outage should be a “wake-up call” about the need to better protect vital infrastructure.

“This shows how easy it would be to attack” vital networks, such as the Internet, mobile phones and electronic banking and government services.

Wednesday”s damage wasn”t terrorism but it could have been, he said, adding, “When it comes to great technology, it”s not about building it, it”s how to protect it.”

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