Shortly before Christmas, US company Verizon Communications said it would partner a host of Chinese, Korean and Taiwan telecom operators in building a next-generation undersea optical cable system linking China and America.
The US$500 million network will have 60 times the capacity of current links, allowing 62 million simultaneous phone calls.
Come December 27, many people across the region would have been happy with just one phone call. An earthquake off the coast of Taiwan the previous night damaged the existing optic cables connecting East Asia with the US and Europe, severing virtually all non-local internet and telecom links.
Services have been frustratingly slow in returning to full capacity. As this magazine went to print, the target date for completing the repairs had slipped from January into February.
The manner in which the earthquake exposed an internet-dependent society's vulnerability to technical mishaps was powerful indeed. Businesses across the region – CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW included – faltered without the principal arteries of their communication systems to rely on.
Some of the losses were quantifiable, for example the breakdown in data flows preventing financial transactions in a number of places. But the real impact of the situation, which theoretically took money from anyone commercially dependent on the electronic passage of information, may be impossible to calculate.
Needless to say, people were left looking for someone to blame. The internet was supposed to be indestructible. Even in the event of a nuclear attack, information would still be able to flow between two points by simply taking a different path through the network.
This wasn't the case for East Asia. Perhaps now it is easy to ask why the region's main links to the rest of the world were running through an earthquake-prone area, with no clear back up.
Is this the fault of cost-conscious ISPs unwilling to switch their operations to satellite systems? Or are the telecom companies that put down these cables guilty of poor planning?
The internet has become so pervasive that its operation is an issue of international social interest. Telecom operators across the globe tend to be government-owned or government-regulated and it is therefore up to governments to ensure that basic standards are met, regardless of cost.
It remains to be seen whether the events of the last month represent a lesson learned. The likes of Verizon may be keen to serve the needs of China's growing telecom market, but services must stand up to scrutiny. This is about more than just profits.
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