Several undersea cables were cut or damaged in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa on Friday, in an incident that will probably turn out to be very similar to last winter’s incident north of Egypt. That incident was eventually blamed on a ship anchor, and I’ll bet this one will turn out to be the same – if not an anchor then something else dragged by a boat. Two years ago of course, the earthquakes off Taiwan practically severed most of Asia from the rest of the internet for over a month. This time, the outage is less severe, most countries that were affected initially have managed to route around the troubles and are just seeing slower speeds for now.
But it could have been much worse, and everyone knows it. Every time this sort of thing happens, there is outrage over the delicacy of our infrastructure: how can they put these cables all in one spot and call it redundant? Sometimes we lay new cables, as is currently in progress in the Pacific, and sometimes we just wait for the furor to die down and cross our fingers that it won’t happen again. Why? We have this tendency to think of the sea floor as a safe place where the only accidents are freak accidents, a nice flat bed of sand few can reach and fewer actually want to. But the ocean covers wildly varied geography, and it’s actually pretty hard to run these cables on other routes and there will always be choke points.
So these cable breaks are looking more like ‘annual freak accidents’ these days, and every time it happens it is bigger news because every year these cables become more and more important to the proper operation of our societies. They say the world is getting smaller all the time, but perhaps we should now also say that the ocean is getting shallower. What was once almost inaccessible is becoming less so all the time. What will we do if the pirates off Somalia figure this out, and find a way to start holding those cables off their coast for ransom? Those are, after all, the same cables currently being repaired along with others right alongside them.
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