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COMMUNICATIONS

Undersea mishap's global effect

Cut cables cause havoc in places as far apart as Irvine and India.

February 01, 2008|Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writer

Dubai slowed, New Delhi wobbled and Irvine inched along.

Two cables carrying Internet traffic under the Mediterranean Sea were snapped Wednesday, disrupting business half a world away.

The Internet's speed and resilience have fueled the globalization of many kinds of work, such as call centers, software development and data entry. But the rare Internet traffic jam or accident can wreak havoc in far-flung places.

In Irvine, Anjay Bajaj's business felt the effects immediately.

His team in New Delhi processes 600 medical forms a day for U.S. health clinics and ships the data over the Internet. That slowed as Bajaj scrambled to figure out what had happened.

"It's worrying that a ship in the Middle East can cut two cables and there is a doctor in the U.S. who is not going to get his reports out on time," said Bajaj, a director at Altos Inc.

The cut cables caused Internet trouble across a vast area, including countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. India, home to a huge outsourcing industry, saw Internet bandwidth capacity cut in half, according to one source.

The Dubai stock exchange slowed Wednesday. Internet traffic from India and the Middle East intended for the U.S. and Europe was reportedly sluggish as it was rerouted around the globe via the Pacific Ocean. The fix could take as long as a week.

The cause of the outage was not known, although it was suspected that a ship leaving the Egyptian port of Alexandria cut the two lines.

Big firms that provide offshore services to U.S. companies, such as Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys Technologies Ltd., reported that they experienced no interruption in Internet connection. Some companies were able to switch to a satellite connection if they needed a backup.

Some said the situation was a wake-up call about the vulnerability of the Internet. Others said the accident highlighted the Internet's strength.

"We are more and more globally connected, which creates new requirements and a new resilience," said Amar Gupta, a professor of management and technology at the University of Arizona.

"As more optical fiber is laid, the fact that one line is missing, it becomes less important."

On Wednesday morning, Bajaj first realized something was wrong when he received a phone call at 10 from his team in New Delhi that there were Internet problems. Was he having problems too?

For hours, no one knew what had happened or whether the problem was within the company or with the firm's three Internet service providers.

"There are so many moving pieces when you look from here to India," Bajaj said. "There's so many things that could go wrong."

Workers handling Bajaj's other business, recruiting technology workers in the U.S., were mostly idle during the day Wednesday in part because the company's phone system operates over the Internet.

Bajaj and his workers snapped into action. They began to upload medical documents to be processed hours ahead of normal so that employees in India would have something to work on. Bajaj scratched plans he had for Wednesday in order to contact U.S. clients and ask them to prioritize the work they needed done. In New Delhi, employees spent $300 to buy prepaid minutes for cellphones so that the recruiters could get back to work.

As of Thursday night, the firm's productivity was still half of what it normally is, Bajaj said. But medical forms are being processed and shipped. And Bajaj was beginning to see the bright side.

"The Internet was designed not to have a single point of failure," he said.

"It is comforting that it did not just go down."

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michelle.quinn@latimes.com

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The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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