- By Carolyn O'HaraCarolyn O'Hara is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
More than 95 percent of international telephone and data traffic travels via undersea cables. Knowing that, it’s still surprising that an accident in Egypt can bring down most of the Internet… in India. Today, Internet users from Cairo to Calcutta are either without the Web or their service is operating at a fraction of its normal capacity. The culprit? A ship off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, dragged its anchor and snagged two major underwater telecommunications cables. Unfortunately for Internet addicts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, and India, the SeaMeWe-4 and FLAG Europe-Asia cables, which carry the majority of Internet service between Western Europe and the Middle East and South Asia, were the ones cut. See the handy map below from the folks at TeleGeography for the specifics:
Stephan Beckert at TeleGeography told me that cuts to undersea cables are actually quite common, but rarely does it happen to two cables at once—and to cables that bear so much traffic. Of course, disasters do happen: Internet and telephone service in Asia was disrupted for weeks in December 2006 after nine undersea cables were damaged due to a big earthquake off the coast of Taiwan. But there’s not as much risk of disruption when there are a host of other cables (such as between, say, North American and Europe) for traffic to spill onto. Here’s a fascinating map of the traffic our current system of underwater cables can handle:
It’s unclear when normal service could be restored to the affected countries; it could be a few days or as long as two weeks. The Arabist, an anonymous blogger based in Egypt, sarcastically predicts “complete social breakdown” when people find themselves unable to update Facebook every few minutes. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.