Cable cut hits China hard

Internet users in China have been hard-hit by a break in a major transpacific cable last Friday. The break is not to be fixed until some time next week.

A repair ship, the Ocean Link, has arrived in the area of the break about 320 kilometres off the coast of Shanghai, and engineers are working on the problem, said Carrie Chan, business manager of Teleglobe Hong Kong Ltd., a unit of Teleglobe Inc., in an interview Thursday. However, finding the break underwater and fixing it is expected to take at least four to five days, she said.

“The carriers that participate in the cable know there is some kind of problem (…) but do not know how serious it is,” said Haruhiko Maede, a spokesman for DDI Corp., parent company of KDD Submarine Cable Systems Inc., which is in charge of repairing the cable.

China has been hit hardest by the break, which also slowed Internet access in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and other locations on Friday.

The slowdown in China has been widespread and serious for home users and Internet-related businesses alike, said Duncan Clark, an analyst at BDA (China) Ltd., in Beijing.

“This is like 1995 all over again,” said Clark, comparing Internet access in the past few days with the daily situation in China before the China-U.S. Cable Network and other large fiber-optic links to the U.S. were activated. Access to Web pages, Internet-based e-mail and Internet phone services has been slow, erratic and sometimes impossible.

“It comes and it goes, but it’s just a huge hassle,” Clark said. He estimated the cost to China in the billions of dollars.

In addition to limiting users’ access to online e-mail accounts and Web sites hosted outside China, connectivity to some sites within China has been affected also. There are 10 backbone data networks in China, but the links between them in some cases are as slow as 10M bps (bits per second). When packets encounter a link like that, they often head for the fastest alternative route, which in many cases means a round trip to the U.S. and back, Clark said.

Long-distance telephone services that use IP data lines have also been hit by the cable cut, he said. Such services have been a big hit with Chinese looking for cheaper international calls and have expanded rapidly in the past year. But since the break, at times users have not been able to get through to those networks and have had to revert to traditional circuit-switched phone service.

Many multinational companies have been shielded from the effects of the break because they lease their own dedicated bandwidth on international cables, often with backup links.

Telecommunications equipment maker Ericsson AB, which has extensive manufacturing and sales operations in China, was shielded from the worst effects of the cable cut by thorough preparation — and a little bit of luck.

“We could have been affected, but our private network doesn’t go through that cable,” said Anders Nylen, global IT infrastructure operations manager for China.

Ericsson communicates with its facilities elsewhere via a leased private line that goes through Malaysia. That line also has its own backup over a different route.

“Of course, our Internet access was affected, but from a production point of view, we were not affected,” Nylen said.

One international law firm with an office in Beijing was left unscathed by the cable break because its associates reach other offices and the Internet via a private intranet on leased lines.

“I was quite concerned before I came in to work,” said Warren Rothman, counsel at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison. “I had problems getting on line from home, but haven’t had problems from the office.” Rothman accesses the Internet via the company’s intranet, which serves as a dedicated link to an ISP (Internet service provider) in the United States.

Most multinational companies with significant operations in China have leased lines and have for several years, said Rothman, who has long experience in the country. The reason: the need for speed.

“A few years ago, it was just impossible the speeds that were available here, and people had to have that (leased access) if they had any significant data going across,” he said.

Individual users in China are prepared too, added BDA’s Clark. There is a reason the number of free Web-based e-mail accounts is several times the number of Internet users in official surveys: Most users have multiple accounts.

Over the past few years, “Domestic e-mail services have been shut down, either for technical reasons or for political reasons,” Clark said. “That’s part of life here: Always have plan B and C.”

Elsewhere in Asia, telecommunications operators were also able to solve connectivity problems by quickly redirecting Internet traffic from the China-U.S. Cable Network to other submarine cables connecting Asia with North America. In Taiwan, where millions of users suffered from poor access to U.S.-based Web sites through most of Friday, incumbent telecommunications carrier Chunghwa Telecom Co. Ltd. had restored connectivity by 9 p.m. Friday local time by redirecting traffic to two other cable networks.