Report: Earthquake-Damaged Asian Networks Will Be Slow To Recover

Tuesday's earthquake off Taiwan damaged communications facilities in the Asian and Pacific region; recovery will likely take weeks, says monitoring firm.
Communications facilities damaged by Tuesday's earthquake off Taiwan are gradually being repaired, but it will likely be at least a few weeks before communications can return to normal, according to Renesys, an Internet and communications traffic-monitoring firm.

"This isn't going to get fixed quickly," said Todd Underwood in an interview Thursday. "At least six major cable systems are still out, so we're not seeing a lot of recovery."

Underwood, who is Renesys' VP of operations and professional services, said there was some relatively quick recovery of service, but he expects communications providers must now hunker down for a slow and gradual recovery. He estimated that a thousand networks were still not operating.

The earthquake recorded a magnitude of 6.7 and its epicenter was pinpointed in the ocean off Taiwan. Almost immediately communications among several Asian and Pacific nations were disrupted -- in some cases knocking out connections entirely, and in other instances slowing traffic to a crawl.

Cable service providers quickly pressed backup systems and approaches into service. Noting that special repair ships must fix the damaged cables, Underwood said it could take a week to fix each cable. "It's not like there are six [repair] boats ready to act," he said.

Some telecommunications providers switched facilities to satellite, but satellite was only considered to be a stopgap solution because of the technology's slow speed and high cost.

The service disruption has caused the Pacific Telecommunications Council, a nonprofit organization consisting of several telecom firms, to escalate plans to examine fiber-optic systems in the region at its January conference, with an eye to preparing better for emergencies.

"Natural disaster can expose weaknesses in global communications," said Ken Zita, conference chairman, in a statement. "Despite the latest network management technologies, traffic concentration remains susceptible to strong natural hazards." Zita said emergency communications and disaster management will be highlighted at the conference.

While the telecom systems hit hardest by the earthquake are all are based in Asia, U.S.-based companies are moving more aggressively into the region. AT&T and Verizon Communications are participating in new efforts to build out advanced networks in Asian and Pacific areas.

Underwood noted that the trans-Atlantic cable infrastructure is more elaborate and robust than the trans-Pacific network. The Asian and Pacific communications infrastructure is also more expensive to operate and its services more expensive than those in the Atlantic region.

Service appeared to be haphazard and sporadic across different localities. Hong Kong's PCCW, the chief fixed-line provider for the city, reported that some Internet users in the region would likely have service problems over the next several days, according to media reports. However, Hong Kong's City Telecom said Thursday that its overseas communications and international dialing services had "basically resumed," with Internet service essentially returned to normal. Underwood noted that telephone service between Japan and Vietnam was impeded.

David Lassner, CIO at the University of Hawaii and the Pacific Telecommunications Council's president, stressed the importance of emergency planning. "Everything from billions of dollars in international trade to personal communication with family is silently carried by our industry," he said in a statement. "When we go dead, the world goes dead."