When the flooding was bad in Oregon, local HAM radio operators became heroes in getting out information. Luckily the Post office was working, so I finally got a letter from my son saying he was okay but the internet was out.

After Katrina, Ham radio volunteers started a cooperation network three days before the hurricane hit, and kept the lines of communication open when power outages and cut telephone lines isolated shelters and entire communities.

And once, during an ice storm, our rural Minnesota hospital was kept connected to the outside only via our cellphones.

We take mass communications for granted. Even in the rural Philippines, our farmers have cellphone access and often text to each other. Every “sarisari” store seems to cell “loads”: i.e. home shops that sell snacks and small items sell airtime for cellphones for as little as a US dollar, enabling even the poorest family to afford communication.

Yet how would one communicate in emergencies?

Telephone lines? They can be cut  deliberately, or when poles fall down due to floods, icestorms, hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes.
Satellite phones? Fine, except for the expense, and the fact that a good solar flare could put them out of business.

Cellphones and other communications that use towers (e.g. microwave towers) have their own weak spot: Towers that can fall in earthquakes, or be sabotaged by local “insurgents”.

And then we have the internet.

I first became aware of the internet’s weakness in emergencies on 9-11, when our boss, fearing to upset the patients, ordered all televisions and radios turned off in our clinic.

But in between patients, when I searched for information, I found most of the US news sites were unavailable due to excess traffic…but finally discovered the collapse of the towers by googling the BBC site.

The Internet was originally supposed to be an alternative way for the US military to communicate. Yet as the internet grows, it’s Achilles heel is the underseas cables that connect continents.

I first became aware of this in early 2007, when our local internet was out for six weeks following an earthquake off the coast of Taiwan.

From Boingboing:

Dec 26, 20:26-20:34 Beijing Time, 7.2 and 6.7 magnitude earth quake have occurred in the South China Sea. Affected by the earthquake, Sina-US cable, Asia-Pacific Cable 1, Asia-Pacific Cable 2, FLAG Cable, Asia-Euro Cable and FNAL cable was broken and cut up. The break-off point is located 15 km south to Taiwan, which severely affected the International and national tele-communication in neighboring regions.


It was also reported that communication directed to China mainland, Taiwan, US and Europe were all massively interrupted. Internet connection to countries and region outside of China mainland became very difficult. Voice communication and telephone services were also affected.

We are in a rural area, so losing landline telephone service is common. But although some internet access was restored to the main internet cafes by the end of January, we didn’t get home internet restored for another month.

And in today’s news, another cable problem affecting the internet to the Middle East:

“This cut has affected Internet services in Egypt with a partial disruption of 70 percent of the network nationwide,” the Egyptian ministry said in a statement.

Residents of Gulf Arab countries also reported a slowdown in Internet connectivity. The Bahrain Telecommunications Co said its services were affected after two undersea cables were cut near Alexandria, on Egypt’s north coast.

The Egyptian telecoms ministry said it did not know how the cables were cut or if weather was a factor. Storms had forced Egypt to close the northern mouth of the Suez canal on Tuesday.

India also reported serious disruptions to its services and Rajesh Chharia, president of the Internet Service Providers’ Association of India, told Reuters: “There has been a 50 to 60 percent cut in bandwidth.”

So I expect that during the day, our own internet will go slow due to traffic being sent over the Pacific cable.

Yet these internet problems are not only affecting personal communication, but financial and business communications that use the internet, especially in Egypt but also in the Persian Gulf and as far as India.
A more curious note is found in this news report: That it may not have been storms, but the cables cut accidentally by a ship anchor.

Flag Telecom told The Register that ships were anchored in an unusual location off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, and a ship’s anchor cut into the cable.

A Flag spokesman said the company was in the process of sending a repair ship to the site to assess the damage, but it warned that repairs could take 12 to 15 days.

Verizon Communications Inc. was also routing some customer traffic around the cable cuts, according a report. A Verizon spokeswoman said that the two cuts occurred at separate times, with the first to the SEA-ME-WE4 at 11:30 p.m. yesterday (EST) and the second at 2:30 a.m. (EST) today. She speculated that the cuts may have been caused by a ship dragging an anchor; the consortium is still investigating.

Verrry interesting.

Place conspiracy theory here….

But anyway, it brings up the point that internet communications have an Achilles heel…not just that they are vulnerable to viruses, but that cutting a cable can cause problems.

Presumably, the US Army has alternative ways to send communications. But what about private family emails? I know when my son in law was in Iraq, his wife would get upset if his daily email didn’t arrive….

But anyway, all of this just points to the importance of alternative means of communications in today’s interconnected world.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket. 


Be Sociable, Share!