Taiwan Quake Exposes Internet Vulnerability

Posted in Asia | 15-Jan-07 | Author: Adam Wolfe

The December 27, 2006 earthquake off the coast of Taiwan caused little structural damage and remarkably few deaths for a 7.1 magnitude tremor. Nevertheless, it disrupted telecommunication networks in Asia severely and exposed a vulnerable "choke point" in the network of fiber-optic cables that form the physical layer of the Internet. While the Internet's built-in protocol automatically reroutes traffic over alternative routes when there is a disruption, the vast majority of the physical cables that connect the United States and Asia run through the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines -- leaving few alternative paths for the bandwidth. The "choke point" in the Luzon Strait and other potential points of failure in the worldwide telecommunications network are obvious causes of concern economically, but the outage raises geopolitical questions as well.

Choke Points in the Internet

All networked systems behave similarly and are subject to failure if there is not sufficient redundancy to avoid single points of failure. Any component, if it fails, can cause an interruption in the function of the network. Reliable systems avoid single points of failure, but no system can ever be 100 percent reliable. The network of networks that form the Internet, although famously designed to withstand a nuclear attack, is still subject to this rule. Although there are no points within the telecommunications network that could knock out the entire system, there are weaknesses that could choke off vast portions of the network.

The Internet is a scale-free network, meaning that its characteristics do not change based on its size, and its protocols ensure that information can take any route within this grid. These characteristics ensure the resiliency of the network; however, its reliability is still tied to the physical reliability of the telecommunications grid, which forms the bulk of its physical layer. The December 27 earthquake exposed one of the weaknesses of this layer: the physical layer of the Internet is made up of several redundant lines, but many of the redundancies run through the same locations -- meaning, a single incident at one of these points can choke off the bandwidth to a large area.

Up to a dozen of the loops of fiber-optic cables that connect Asian countries to each other and to the outside world all run through the Bashi Channel in the Luzon Strait -- an area known for seismic activity, deep waters, strong currents, and powerful winds. This means that a large segment of Asia's connection to the outside world runs through a point that is geologically unstable and in a difficult environment for repair crews to work.

Service providers were quick to point out that traffic was being redirected to overland routes and satellites. However, the overland routes into China and South Korea, from India and Russia, could not cope with the bandwidth that the earthquake removed from the system. Satellites are also limited in their capacity, and two weeks later there were still some service interruptions in China.

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