Cut undersea Internet cables slow India's connectivity

Three vital undersea cables were cut last week, but India's IT sector coped well.

Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
Support: Despite disruptions, a call-center employee in Siliguri, India, was able to help customers.

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."

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