Lessons of Severed Cables

By Larry Walsh  |  Posted Sunday, February 03, 2008 15:02 PM

Not once, not twice, but three times last week major undersea Internet cables were severed, disrupting service between Europe and India and severely decreasing bandwidth availability to much of the Middle East.

These remarkably coincidental physical breaks are the stuff of conspiracy theories. Security pundits have long predicted coordinated infrastructure assaults that involved both digital and physical attacks to disrupt Internet service and communications. This wasn't it (at least we think).

Is it possible for hackers, terrorists and the military to cut cables to blackout the Internet? Of course it is, but why would they. We are all equally dependent upon the Internet for everything from routing messaging to global commerce. The Internet's normal operations are just as important to al Qaeda as it is to Wal-Mart.

For the time being, we can accept the current explanations for these breaks: ships dragging their anchors and/or undersea earthquakes--accidents have been known to happen. Remember in July 2001, when a Baltimore train fire melted a teleco backbone cable? Much of the Northeast lost Internet connectivity for several days until service was restored.

While some will continue looking for the smoking gun to show this was an attack, let's take solace in what we learned--the Internet live up to its billing: survivability.

Internet bandwidth was reduced as much as 80 percent in much of the Middle East. Egypt reported a loss of 70 percent connectivity, for instance. People may not have been able to move around large files and download videos, but connectivity didn't cease completely. The Internet did what it was supposed to do--reroute traffic and keep communications open.

Nevertheless, these incidents also reveal the fragility of the Internet and our dependence on high-speed connectivity. Globalization was made possible by the availability of ubiquitous and cheap bandwidth. Even if connectivity is maintained on a minimum level, few enterprises can tolerate waiting hours for large files to download or insufficient bandwidth for voice and video communications.

If there's anything we should take away from these severed cables, it's that the global infrastructure requires continuous improvement to guard against accidents and equipment failures as much as we worry about hackers and terrorists.