Asian Telecommunications is Broken

In the Hutong
Enjoying a journey back in time to the days of dial-up speeds
1313 hrs

In the wake of The Great Asian Internet Blackout of 2006, all of us living in the world’s most populous continent have discovered a fact known previously only to the cognoscienti of long-haul telecommunications: the Asian Internet is a dangerously fragile thing.

When the Internet was developed by DARPA some 40 years ago, it was created on the back of a highly developed continental telecommunications infrastructure that offered a wide range of possible ways to get data from one point to another. Internet protocols were designed to rout around damaged or jammed lines, finding the next best alternative until the chunk of data got through.

What is becoming apparent to me as a non-engineer is that when you use those approaches on a network topography that is less about interlocking webs of connections and more about a small number of really long wires, those mechanisms are seriously prone to failure. In other words, long-haul connectivity is still a massive vulnerability in the world’s data networks.

Last week’s incident was a clear signal that something is broken and needs to be fixed, and I’m not just talking about a handful of fiber optic cables in the Philippine Sea.

Asia’s Internet connections need a level of redundancy that a dozen years of frantic fiber-laying has been unable to provide. That’s not acceptable – the Internet is no longer an academic convenience or a kid’s toy – it is now a critical part of government, commerce, and telecommunications, and this level of vulnerability is not going to be tolerated.

It will not, however, be cheap to fix.

The questions that lay before all of us are a) how does this get fixed, b) how much will it cost, c) who will fix it, and d) who will pay for it.

I have no idea about the first three, but I’m pretty sure the answer to “d” will be “all of us.”

In the meantime, finding a solution is about to become a critical, consuming question (and a contingent liability) for companies like China Netcom, PCCW, China Telecom, Hutchinson, NTT, Chunghwa Telecom, SKT, and all of the major carriers in the region.

Update: Just saw Art Hutchinson’s post on the Mapping Strategy blog that notes how this whole incident underscores the strategic vulnerability of the PRC’s Internet to a wily information warfare campaign. A single minesweeper could take out China’s Internet. Boy, talk about an Achilles heel…


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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