When the Net goes down

Middle East outage underscores the need for a backup plan

THE UNDERSEA cable cuts that disrupted Internet service throughout the Middle East late last month delivered an important reminder that the worldwide network is not immune to outages capable of severing international communications and interfering with global commerce.

U.S. military installations in that region were affected, but the Defense Department's ability to reroute traffic and the capacity of its medical systems to work off-line kept the impact to a minimum.

The first two cuts occurred late in the day Jan. 30 off the port of Alexandria, Egypt, when an unidentified ship dragged its anchor across three fiber-optic cables on the Mediterranean Sea floor severing the cables. A third cable was cut off the coast of Dubai.

The severed cables cut capacity on the Middle East-to-Europe route by an estimated 75 percent and caused service disruptions in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, with an especially disruptive impact on India's communications- dependent economy.

The outages had minimal effect on most large U.S. businesses and government agencies, although the cuts disrupted Internet service at military bases in the Middle East and required the military to reroute its Internet traffic.

The Defense Information Systems Agency, which operates DOD's Global Information Grid, said its unclassified communications network relies on connectivity from commercial Internet service providers worldwide. The GIG was immediately affected by the cable cuts, although DISA was able to quickly restore service.

'Our procedures are sufficiently mature that when interruptions in the global network occur, we can respond quickly and efficiently,' a DISA spokesman said. 'We work with our industry partners to provide the necessary capabilities, and our network operations centers around the world respond with their standard procedures.'

The U.S. military's medical installations in the region lost Internet connectivity during the outage but continued to function thanks to procedures that allow medical personnel to continue providing care and recording vital patient care data.

The Army's Medical Communications for Combat Casualty Care (MC4) system continued to function in the region, the service said, because the system uses offline medical recording systems.

Army medical units in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan lost their Internet connections, but combat support hospitals and battalion aid stations in the affected region continued to operate, and doctors and nurses continued recording data on patient care using MC4, which the Army deployed in 2003. The system is designed to support medical operations in environments with little or no communications capability.

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