Monday, February 4, 2008
Bandwidth providers shifted India's Internet traffic to cables under the Pacific Ocean on Friday and said that by day's end they expected service to be back to about 80 percent of its speed before two cables were cut beneath the Mediterranean Sea.
New Delhi - With Internet speed slowing to a crawl across much of India, some of the country's call centers have been forced to close up shop for hours, if not days. One airline has added extra staff to its telephone service – assuming that many of its customers will no longer be able to book flights over the Internet.
The disruption of service resulted from breaks last week in three vital undersea Internet cables that connect South Asia to the outside world. By and large, India's technology and call-center industries have weathered the crisis well, reverting to backup satellite systems, or different routes along undamaged cables.
But for the average consumer, as well as for smaller businesses that lack substantial resources, the "impact has been horrendous," says Deepak Gupta of the Business Process Industry Association of India, which works with many of India's outsourcing firms.
Early estimates suggested that half of India's Internet capacity vanished after the first two cable lines were cut Wednesday. In other countries, such as Egypt, the figure was as high as 70 percent. The two Mediterranean cables cut Wednesday carry the bulk of the region's Internet traffic, and the cables may have been cut by ships that dropped anchor out of port because of storms.
Much of this traffic has now been rerouted along Pacific cables. Because of the redirected traffic, a third cable cut, discovered Friday in the Gulf region, has had no effect. Some 90 percent of India's bandwidth has been restored and cable repairs are expected to take two weeks, but bad weather has prevented a repair ship from setting off to mend one of the cables.
For some businesses, the cut meant a slightly degraded service – poorer reception for call-centers that use Internet telephony, for example. But for larger businesses that carry the bulk of outsourcing from the United States and Europe, there was virtually no disruption.
"We have diversity in path and providers globally, and hence we have not lost any connectivity to our offices or customers," according to an e-mailed statement by Infosys, one of India's largest Information Technology companies.
The impact has been greatest on the average Indian Web surfer, who saw delays increase dramatically, as well as small to mid-size outsourcing operations. Some of these call centers have been closed for days, says Mr. Gupta. Using Internet cables for phone conversations requires huge capacity. When that capacity diminishes and there is no backup plan, Gupta says: "You can't hold a conversation."
On the first day after the cut, one of India's largest papers, the Hindustan Times could not run the daily stock quotes because of the crash. SpiceJet, a low-cost Indian airline has doubled the number of employees at its telephone call center, anticipating problems with online booking.
For the most part, experts say, Indian companies have coped well and have learned the lessons of a similar cut that occurred along the Pacific route during a 2006 earthquake.
"This is a reminder of the need to come up with redundancy plans," says Rajesh Chharia, president of the Internet Service Providers' Association of India. "This problem should not happen again."
The disruptions cost India half its bandwidth, leaving the country's lucrative outsourcing industry struggling with Internet slowdowns and outages,
The situation improved Friday as international bandwidth providers shifted their Internet traffic to the Pacific route, significantly upgrading India's Web access, said Rajesh Chharia, president of India's Internet Service Provider's Association. He said the country's Internet connectivity would be at roughly 80 percent by the end of Friday.
Many companies said their Internet access had already gotten better.
"We've been getting and sending e-mails normally. Compared to yesterday connectivity is certainly improved," said Praveen Mathur of Streit India Advisory Services Pvt. Ltd., an investment consulting firm based in New Delhi that has clients in the United States and Canada.
The Mediterranean Sea cables, which lie north of the Egyptian port of Alexandria, snapped Wednesday as the work day was ending in India.
Workers will not know for sure what caused the cuts until they are able to get repair ships and divers to the area, though there was speculation a ship's anchor was to blame.
The impact was not immediately apparent in India, but it was in Middle Eastern countries.
India's communications and information technology ministry issued a statement late Thursday saying underwater fiber optic cables usually take 15 days to repair, but they expected they'd be fixed in 10 days.
The Internet disruption raised questions about the system's vulnerability. A Gulf analyst called it a "wake-up call," while one in London cautioned that no one, including the West, was immune to such disruptions.
They could have a "massive impact on businesses," said Alex Burmaster from Nielsen Online in London, adding that ordinary people "probably couldn't imagine" life without the Internet.
Such large-scale disruptions are rare but not unknown. East Asia suffered nearly two months of outages and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in 2006.