The Internet feels elemental, omnipresent. It is easy to forget that there is a physical reality to it until something mundane but hugely disruptive happens.
On Wednesday an Indian-owned cable in the Mediterranean Sea, just off the Egyptian coast near Alexandria, was damaged by an unknown cause and millions of Internet users across the Middle East and South Asia were affected. More from Reuters:
"India also reported serious disruptions to its services and Rajesh Chharia, president of the Internet Service Providers' Association of India, told Reuters: "There has been a 50 to 60 percent cut in bandwidth."
"Chharia told the Headlines Today news channel that a "degraded" service would be up and running by Wednesday night, but full restoration would take 10 to 15 days."
According to The Guardian, the enormous cable runs from Germany all the way to Australia and Japan. At Palermo, Italy, it becomes a submarine cable and reemerges at Alexandria. The Economic Times reports that the cable is the FLAG cable, which is owned by Reliance. (Incidentally, if it is the FLAG then The Guardian has its geography slightly wrong - see this map of the cable's transcontinental route)
The idea of carrying communications under water goes back to the invention of the telegraph, and the first working submarine cable linked Britain and France in 1850. The first working transatlantic telephone cable was laid in 1953. However, there are still only a few international data cables and many new ones are being planned as more of the world starts to use the Internet.
It is surprising how fragile the infrastructure can be, especially when governments are hostile to the free flow of information. There is only one major Internet connection in Burma (Myanmar), which runs from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Rangoon, Burma's largest city, and so preventing citizens from accessing the Internet really is as easy as pulling a plug. Thus all Internet traffic in Burma can be filtered to try to prevent people from accessing anti-government sites, and during the unrest last year the military junta opted to just turn it off. The coup in Nepal in 2005 elicited a similar reaction from the Nepalese government.
But India? Outsourcing and all the rest of the “world is flat” hoopla depends on seamless connectivity between the West and the countries to which the West’s white-collar functions have been outsourced, and an event like this threatens that seamlessness. Nonetheless, it is too early to tell whether this particular incident will really affect business. For one thing, there are some redundancies, like the SMW-4 cable, which covers roughly the same route as the severed FLAG cable. The Indian Internet service provider VSNL (and several others), whose traffic largely uses the SMW-4, have been only slightly affected. Even if the real damage to commerce is minimal, it is a reminder that even in the so-called "global village," we cannot take communications for granted.