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Workmen Struggle to Repair Cables off Taiwan
Millions of Asian web users suffer connectivity problems
Alex Argote (alexphil)     Print Article 
Published 2007-01-15 14:07 (KST)   
The recent earthquake that jolted the southern coast of Taiwan has sent shockwaves rippling even across Asian cyberspace, as a wide swath of online communities is cut off from the rest of the digital world because of devastating damages on the undersea Internet and communication fiber-optic cables that carry signals to the U.S. and Europe.

The quake, which struck southern Taiwan on Dec. 26, 2006, killed two people and injured 50 more. It also caused faults that ruptured several undersea fiber-optic cables lying on the southern coast of the island. Reports said that about four of the six communication cables suffered considerable damage when they were ruptured at certain points near the coast of Taiwan. The delicate fiber-optic lines are owned by the state-run Chunghwa Telecom, which provides internet connection services to businesses in mainland China, Philippines, Australia, and other countries in the region.

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As a result of the quake-induced damage, in which Chunghwa Telecom lost almost 90 percent of its bandwidth capacity under the churning waves of the sea, tens of millions of Asian netizens suddenly experienced irritatingly slow internet connections due to severe web traffic congestion on the two remaining undamaged fiber cables.

Last Thursday, repair ships were rushed to the suspected problem spots amid stormy weather in a bid to restore connections to full capacity before the end of February. Crews are working under extremely difficult conditions, with strong winds buffeting the ships before they can get into position for divers to plunge 1000 meters down to the ocean floor to try to retrieve the ruptured ends of the cables and bring them to the surface for testing, splicing and connecting to another ruptured end.

But the diving and retrieval method could be very dangerous and might cost some of the divers their lives, since the area is teeming with carnivorous sharks and other deadly marine life. So some of the outfits, like the Global Marine repair group, are resorting to tried and tested solutions like dredging the sea to fix the problem. Global Marine repair ships are manned by 50 mostly British officers and crewmen and in the past months, before the major disaster caused by the quake, they were busy fixing cables, which are often damaged by fishermen and submarines.

In the dredging method, hooks are attached to long lines which are then lowered deep into the sea and dragged by fast moving ships across the area where the fiber optic cables are located. When the dredging hooks hit a cable, a certain amount of tension is registered in the ship's scanners and the lines are hauled up until the cut end of the cable is brought to the surface. Another fast moving vessel with similar equipment repeats the process until both ends of the cables are cleaned of debris, tested, spliced and reconnected before being lowered down into the sea floor.

So far, no repairs have been made because of the inclement weather. A calm sea is needed to enable dredging ships to move fast as they drag the hooking lines in search of the target cables. With winds whipping at 40 mph, the crews are having a hard time doing their tasks.

Meanwhile, up on the surface, Internet users are chafing at the excruciatingly slow connection which hampers their browsing, chatting, gaming and other web activities that they had gotten used to. Some sites takes a half hour to download, and sending an email even without attachments can sometimes be tedious and frustrating.

But the cost of the slow connection can be a big blow to some small call centers and medical transcription firms, such as the companies located in the Philippines, who have to contend with interminably slow voice and web processing of their reports. As painful as things currently go, people who depend on the Internet will have to bear the long wait since the tedious undersea cable repairs might take weeks to complete.

The cost is even bigger for Chunghwa Telecom, which is projected to lose roughly US$4.5 million or NT$150 million in repair expenditures and lost net connection charges, which are exempted from the time the fiber cables were cut to the time they are restored to working status.

With such big losses in revenue, Chunghwa officials are mulling laying more redundant undersea cables, as well as jointly launching another communication satellite with greater bandwidth capacity with Singapore Telecom.

In 1998, the two telecommunications giants jointly launched the ST - 1 Telecom satellite which has a calculated lifespan of until 2011.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Alex Argote

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