Just how shakey is our connection?

Marketplace Staff Dec 28, 2006

BOB MOON: Try to imagine a cable about as big around as your thumb, and inside pulses of light streaking along tiny glass fibers. It takes only a few of those cables to carry all the telecommunications bandwidth needs of entire countries.

And it took just one big jolt from an undersea earthquake this week to snap a handful of cables and cut off or slow telephone and Internet traffic across much of Asia. Today, crews were able to reroute a lot of the calls and data, through satellites and distant cables that weren’t affected.

But, millions of customers, from banks to Internet game players, are still struggling to make connections. If it can happen there, could it happen here? For some insight on that, we turn to Frank Dzubeck, who heads the consulting firm Communications Networks Architects. Thanks for joining us.

FRANK DZUBEK: Thank you for having me.

MOON: The first thing that came to mind, hearing about how widespread this disruption seems to be, is all the promises that we’ve heard for so long about how resilient the World Wide Web is supposed to be. And yet we’ve got all these problems reported from Beijing to Bangkok and even all the way to Brisbane. So, how does this prove that the system works? Or does it prove it doesn’t work?

DZUBEK: Actually, it proves it works. What happened is is that where you have the Internet, the Internet does pretend to be 100 percent unfailable, but it does portend to be resilient. And what that means is that it has alternatve path capabilities. So if you attempt to go in one direction, and it will then automatically route you in another direction if it can’t have access to that.

MOON: So if we had a big earthquake that snapped communications lines here in California or up and down the West Coast, why would things be any different here?

DZUBEK: You actually had that. It turns out that if you’re looking at things relative to the Internet, there was a major earthquake in yours and my visibility in San Francisco that caused significant damage in the San Francisco area, and you’ll notice that the amount of repercussions with respect to even — let’s say, you’re in Los Angeles — . . . you didn’t feel those repercussions. You felt some degree of that but you didn’t see outages and so forth, etc.

MOON: You’re suggesting that there’s a lot of redundancy built into the system here on this side.

DZUBEK: Here in the United States we have northern routes, we have southern routes, we have routes that are going through the center of the country. We also have satellite facilities that are in existence that, if you noticed every once in a while — even in your own telephone calls going fromo coast-to-coast you sometimes hear echoes. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that they’re using some of those redundant facilities, even as we speak.

MOON: OK, now, if it really is a global system, doesn’t that mean that a problem in Asia is going to disrupt things for all of the rest of us? They do call it the World Wide Web. So, if the traffic has to be rerouted into our areas, for example, doesn’t that slow things down for the rest of us?

DZUBEK: Only if we are under-capacitied where we are. Most of the capacity that we have here in the United States is constantly being added to on a continuing basis. So, it’s not that we have infinite capacity, but it turns out that there’s capacity enough, in all probability, to handle the overflow from something like this on our geography.

MOON: So what I hear you saying is, Not to worry here in the U.S. and maybe even some lessons learned over there.

DZUBEK: Correct. I think you are absolutely spot-on. The problem is, is that remember we’re looking at some of the highest growth points in the world — being the marketplace in both China and Southeast Asia, and now over into India. And those places have been under-capacitied in all honesty. The investment that’s occurring, that was announced I think two weeks ago, of a new, northern route cable going directly from the United States to China. That’s a perfect example of the fact that people understood that they needed to do something. But, it turns out, that we’re just doing a little bit too late. So, you’ve got a great deal of work to be done. And by the way, it really does turn on that light on everybody’s head, saying, “Hey, maybe we’d better take a look at this again.

MOON: Mr. Dzubek, thank you very much for joining us.

DZUBEK: No problem.

MOON: Frank Dzubeck is a telecomm consultant in Washington, D.C.

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