Asia's cables on the blink

On Dec. 26, 2006, the Hengchun earthquake near Taiwan was actually two shocks within 5 minutes of each other at 8:30 p.
Written by Nathaniel Forbes, Contributor

On Dec. 26, 2006, the Hengchun earthquake near Taiwan was actually two shocks within 5 minutes of each other at 8:30 p.m. Taiwan/Hong Kong/Singapore time (UTC 12:30 p.m.) The tremors, magnitudes 7.1 and 6.9, caused a 300-kilometer rupture in the sea floor that severed segments of several, important undersea cables:

  • the original Asia Pacific Cable Network (APCN1) cable, segment B17 (Hong Kong branch)
  • the APCN2 cable, segments 3 (Hong Kong – Chong Ming, China), B5 (Taiwan Branch) and 7 (Tanshui, Taiwan – Shantou, China)
  • the China-U.S. cable, segments W1 (Shantou – Chong Ming), S1 (Shantou – Okinawa, Japan) and W2 (spur to Fangshan, Taiwan)
  • the FLAG Europe Asia (FEA) cable, sub-system 8 (Hong Kong - Shanghai - Korea)
  • the REACH North Asia Loop (RNAL) cable, Hong Kong - Busan, South Korea cable and the Hong Kong – Toucheng, Taiwan segment
  • the Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 3 (SEA-ME-WE3) cable, segments 1.7 and 1.8.
  • The earthquakes occurred along the north-south boundary between the Eurasian and Philippine tectonic plates (green and pink, respectively, on the map below--click for larger view).

    Along the plate-boundary where the earthquake occurred, the Eurasian plate is sliding under ("sub-ducting") the Philippine plate at eighty (80) millimeters per year.

    A Time magazine map shows the location of the quake, the routes (in blue) of the cables listed above, and the western boundary (in red) of the Philippine plate. Some cities in Asia are shown, too. The concentration of cables in the South China Sea is obvious.

    The primary business impact of the cable breaks was to cripple data (and voice) traffic between north and south Asia--Singapore to Tokyo, for example, or Taipei to Hong Kong. Communication between Asia and North America was also heavily affected, because most trans-Pacific bandwidth terminates in North Asia, so the connection of a South Asia Internet user in Malaysia, for example, "hops" through Japan or Taiwan to a North American Web site. When the cables broke, that hop wasn't possible.

    That's going to change eventually. Asia Netcom (the cable network least affected by the December 26 earthquake) has announced plans to build a new loop between the Philippines and the U.S. via Guam in the South Pacific, with a backup loop between Japan and North America in the North Pacific.

    But undersea earthquakes will continue to occur in Asia, the world's most seismically active region, so multiple, simultaneous breaks of fiber optic communication cables laid on the seabed in the China Sea can be expected.

    All of the undersea cable networks are owned and operated by investment consortia, because they are hugely expensive to build. Telcos in Asia have interests in multiple cable consortia, specifically for the purpose of mitigating dependency risk. As a result, many were able to provide limited service even after the December earthquake.

    The BCP Blueprint The only alternative available to the cable consortia is to lay new cables on routes which avoid existing areas of concentration like the Luzon Strait. That's going to take some time. There's already a massive oversupply of underutilized, undersea bandwidth, so the financial incentive to string more cable is low at the moment.

  • The best way to mitigate risks from voice and data communication disruptions in Asia is--and will be--to have service agreements with multiple communication vendors. Your company's risk of exposure to cable breaks is mitigated first and foremost by your telco vendors' participation in multiple cable syndicates so they can offer you routing alternatives.
  • You can further mitigate risk by using multiple telecomm vendors for your data and voice traffic. All the financial hubs in Asia now offer competition in their telecom sectors. Don't locate your office in a city with only one telco, one ISP or one international carrier.
  • It would be prudent to plan to offer independent, simultaneous network service from both North Asia and South Asia. You could have your primary data center in South Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong) and another in North Asia (Japan or Taiwan), or vice versa. One could be the DR (disaster recovery) site for the other, but each should be equipped to host services in its hemisphere independently after a network service interruption caused by the next undersea cable break.
  • International communication stability is only one factor on which to base a decision to locate a data center in Asia. Of more importance in selecting a site are the number and availability of vendors, data center facilities and qualified staff in your selected city.
  • Australia may be an alternative to South Asia. Earthquake risk in Sydney or Melbourne is low, but both cities are far from Asia and cannot match the availability of skilled, multiliingual talent in Singapore or Hong Kong.
  • Finally, in January 2006 my company prepared an Asia-Pacific study of cities in the southern hemisphere in which to locate a DR data center, ranking each city on 40 factors including earthquake risk and resilience to communication interruptions. We recommended Hong Kong or Singapore over Bangalore, Okinawa, Sydney and Melbourne.
  • Author's Note: The authoritative map of submarine cable routes is published by TeleGeography Research. You can view it online at this link. The poster version costs US$250. I hope Santa Claus brings me one next year.

    Update February 20007 The South China Morning Post reported on 15 Feburary 2007 that "repairs on underwater internet and phone cables severely damaged late last year have been completed, 50 days after (the) earthquake." BCP Blueprint: if you're doing contingency planning for loss of voice and data lines in Asia, now you have historical occurrence of a nearly two-month period of impaired service.

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