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The Taiwan earthquake, and a reminder about network fragility

A recent earthquake off the coast of Taiwan has highlighted the fragility of telecoms cables and served as an interesting reminder that “the death of distance” is still one of those ideas that is still more theoretical than real.

Much of the Internet traffic in Asia runs through rings of cable that connect Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan – usually, if there’s a fault in the cable, traffic can run the other way around the ring. But so many cables snapped in the quake that net users in China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan have had major difficulties accessing international sites, especially sites in the US and Europe. The IHT speculates that this may reflect on a need to route international traffic west, through Central Asia and Europe to the US, rather than via undersea cables to the West Coast of the US, where many major internet services are based.

Global Voices’ John Kennedy, reporting from Guangzhao, is watching his Chinese blogger friends get a lesson in network georgraphy as they discover which services do and don’t function after the cable break. Andrew Lih is in Singapore, and has the results of his tests on different blogging and email services, as well as other net-dependent services like Skype. He sees the current outages as a wakeup call for infrastructure providers in East Asia:

With expanses of water separating countries around the Rim of Fire, the region will need to come up with more innovative and robust backup plans. After the South Asia tsunami, satellite communication was the solid backup for voice communication. But those “pipes” are too small to handle so much high speed Internet traffic. I can imagine ASEAN might be interested in collaborating on a true fault-tolerant infrastructure for the region that can survive catastrophic losses of submarine communication.

Neurologists learned a great deal about the human brain from patients who’d survived severe brain injury, like Phineas Gage, who survived an iron tamping bar through the front of his brain, but experienced major personality changes, teaching doctors both about neuroplasticity and about correlations between mental function and brain region. In the same way, we may learn the most about how the Internet works when it’s not working – when the bits are flowing swiftly, there’s no real incentive to think about the fragility of the networks we’ve all grown to depend on.