In the past 14 months, the world has seen two catastrophic failures of its global telecommunications systems: the Taiwan quakes, which snapped 7 of 9 important cables in Asia in December 2006, and a series of mishaps in the Mediterranean and the Gulf, damaging several others. In a world increasingly dependent on global trade and communications, what lessons can we learn from all of this and what measures should we take?
I’ll discuss these questions in what follows, but let me warn you in advance. There is nothing earth-shattering here. In fact, I can save you time and sum up the entire discussion with three bullet points:
- You get what you pay for.
- Entropy happens.
- Geography matters.
We’ve seen a lot of comments and discussion that fail to take into account one or more of these basics truths. Let’s look at each point in detail.
You get what you pay for.
The segment of humanity that relies on the Internet can be roughly broken into two camps: Internet Consumers and Internet Providers. Internet Consumers are individuals, governments or businesses who use the Internet for their own purposes. Internet Providers are in the business of providing Internet access to Internet Consumers. While it is possible to be in both camps, most groups are largely in one or the other. Each has different lessons to learn.
To protect themselves, Internet Consumers need to do at most three things.
- Determine the importance of their connectivity.
- Make the business case for change, if it is warranted.
- Become an informed consumer and buy appropriately.
Can your business survive a complete loss of connectivity or severely degraded connectivity for a day, a week, or a month? If your answer is “no” for anything less than a month, you need to seriously consider your disaster plans. Undersea cables can easily take a month to repair. And in times of distress, there may be many more organizations (with deeper pockets) in line ahead of you. You need more than multiple providers or backup lines. You need to concern yourself with their physical independence. In other words, having 3 or 10 providers is of no help if they all use the same submarine cable. Don’t think of the expense of multiple providers as insurance against an unlikely event, such as your house catching on fire. Your house almost certainly is not going to burn to the ground. However, the Internet cables your business runs on are going to fail; it is only a matter of when and to what degree. Figure out what reliable, fault-tolerant connectivity is worth to you and then buy what makes sense. No one else can do this for you.
To sell to informed Internet Consumers and stay competitive, Internet Providers need to do at least three things.
- Plan for disasters and have a response plan in place.
- Build redundancy.
- Sell your great network to your customers.
When planning for disasters, consider your response to individual cable breaks. If you plan to just “wait it out”, consider what losing all your customers in a region will mean to your bottom line. They won’t be waiting for the repair ships to arrive. As we saw with the latest round of cable cuts, reaction time is everything in gaining new business. Your former loyal customers will be gone in a heartbeat if you can’t deliver in an emergency. Of course, in order to have any contingency plan at all, you need some redundancy in your network, which then gives you a great sales and marketing tool, especially after events like these. Remind your potential customers of the dangers of a focus on price alone. Even if they don’t buy from you today, they will still be around when the next cable breaks. Of course, to be effective and stay one step ahead of your competitors, you need up-to-the-minute Internet Intelligence which is where Renesys comes in. It is of no surprise to us to see our customers doing well both during and after such outages.
While I’ll admit that multiple cable breaks in a week does seem somewhat unlikely, I learned long ago to never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence or simply chance. Given the laws of nature and the fact that there are over 6 billion of us bumbling along, I can’t say it is all that surprising either. Individual cable outages occur all the time and seldom get much attention – the sea floor is not the most hospitable environment for fiber optics. The Economist reports that there were over 50 repair operations in the Atlantic last year alone. Wired claims an average of one cable cut every three days. What these outages teach us is that chance events do not have to be uniformly distributed by geography or by time. And the only reason we even noticed these is because of the extreme lack of redundancy in the region.
As does weather, economics, politics and other annoyances of a non-virtual world. You can see these forces in action on cable maps. If you look at the Middle East in particular, where would you lay the cables?
- West? That takes you through the Sahara.
- South? It’s a long way around the horn of Africa.
- East? That’s the really long way to reach your business partners in Europe.
- North? Better, but avoid the war zones.
The point is simply that your options are going to be influenced by where you live.
I don’t mean to imply that any of the problems we’ve seen are unsolvable. If Internet Consumers demand cheap access above all else, they will get it and, as a consequence, it will be unreliable. If they demand reliable access above all else and are willing to pay for it, the Internet Providers will be more than happy to accommodate them. The ones who don’t won’t be around for long. And in the overall scheme of things, we are not talking about a lot of money. A mere $125M USD gets you a brand new cable from Egypt to France, but only about one third of a plane. Internet consumers, which include governments, need to decide which is more useful.