The skinny white phone cable running across the floor of the offices of International Risk in Hong Kong spoke volumes. For a company that specializes in research, much of it running through the internet, this connection was an effective (if not elegant) lifeline.
It was put after December 26, when an earthquake near Taiwan damaged nine undersea fiber-optic cables connecting much of East Asia with the rest of the world, rendering broadband internet and telecom services useless.
"For us, internet access is life or death," said president and CEO Steve Vickers.
The ultimate impact of the earthquake, which hit 7.2 on the Richter scale, was not tragic. The phone cable that wound its way out of the International Risk conference room and disappeared behind a pool of desks was part of that impromptu network mirrored by many other companies. Others were able to re-route their systems through satellite uplinks.
Counting the cost
But operations were slow, it was inconvenient and, for many, it did cost business. And, beyond the commercial world, households across Greater China were denied access to the internet and international phone calls for days.
The damage was "unimaginable," according to Chan Tze-yee, an assistant director of the Office of Telecommunications Authority in Hong Kong, quoted in local media.
The authority said one of the damaged cables had been repaired by January 3 but others might not be running until as late as early February. In mainland China, state media reported that China Telecom and China Netcom, the two major internet service providers, wouldn't complete repairs until mid-January.
"It was a bit unexpected among the general public and internet professionals," said Dr Winnie Tang, president of the Internet Professionals Association.
At the beginning of January, there were no numbers regarding the overall impact of the breakdown in communications but officials were counting their blessings at its timing – during a traditionally slow time in business and after the heavy retail period before Christmas.
"Many organizations experience bandwidth problems in their day-to-day operations anyway, especially when trying to transmit and receive larger files like marketing material, contracts, drawings and the like across continents and borders," said Michael Lucas, Northern Asia manager for Acconex, an online information management services provider. "The Taiwan quake exacerbated problems."
Larger companies may centralize operations for extra security but these systems can cost upwards of US$250,000. Regional offices don't usually have their own services and rely on services like Yahoo, Skype or MSN.
The earthquake highlighted an Achilles heel for businesses in mainland China and Hong Kong and it remains to be seen whether systems with redundancies built into them will be put in place.
Even internet professionals, Tang said, often neglect to check whether their internet service providers offer redundant systems. Creating alternative communication pipelines between China, Hong Kong and the rest of the world would require some significant investment in technology and infrastructure and it is difficult to say whose job that is.
"It is not solely the responsibility of the government," Tang said, but unfortunately very few are likely to learn the lesson and purchase systems "unless something catastrophic happens".
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