Baigsaab's Blog

Unplugged

Posted in Rants by baigsaab on July 7, 2005
“Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers,” so said Jimmy Breslin, the legendary American columnist. And as i see it, most of the articles that would feature in this month’s internet magazines of the country would reflect a strong feeling of admonishment thanks to the problems faced by Internet users across the country after last month’s breakdown of the SEA-ME-WE (Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe) 3 cable that provides nearly 80 percent access to the Net. Work at government and especially in private offices slumped after PTCL announced they had no immediate backup for the virtual blackout.

Such is the scale of the mess caused by a single cable lying on the seabed of Arabian Sea, making a mockery of all official assertions that of providing the country with a flawless connectivity. SEA-ME-WE 3, as we all know the 40,000 KM long optic fiber cable, provides connectivity to as many as 34 countries. This is not the first time that it has had problems in the submarine section. In the November of 2000, Singapore and Australia, whom one would expect to be more technology savvy than a toddler like Pakistan, were almost cut off from the whole world just like we are these days. Still both countries had a good backup connection, which was up in no time. There were also similar problems in April and July of 2003 when the cable was damaged in isolated events. Pakistan and some other countries in the region were affected, but the problem was promptly identified and the connection restored. At that time, the longest break in connection was 12 hours whereas this time around, it has taken well over 10 days only to identify the problem.

Software companies are but a small fraction of the victims, but for banks, the problem could not have come at a worse time—it was their closing week of the fiscal year. Also if airlines think they’re the most affected victims, ask the scores of call centers spread across the country. No other business would have been more devastated by this Internet crisis than a call center for it needs a dedicated IP for its operations. And if material losses are hard to measure, there’s no limit to the loss of credibility for these startups. Attracting foreign investors was never easy anyway, but after this kind of Net crisis, keeping that list of foreign clientele is now a tough task altogether. No investor deserves surprises like this and with our rates already higher than what’s being offered just across the border, the call center industry seems sure to be struggling in the coming months. Potential investors backed off enduring a loss of nearly 10 million dollars which would have helped the inflated economy. So imagine how much present and potential business might have been lost simply because there was no back-up link to the country’s backbone connection. The scale of losses to the call center business was so huge that they had to submit a complaint to the government to intervene and direct the authorities to give priority to their traffic.

ISP helpdesks are helpless as well. One can only empathize with the poor guys who had to face cult music when disgruntled customers lambasted them for incapableness—they got the thrashing for something that was not even their fault. By the first Saturday of July, that is the sixth day of the crisis, quite a few ISP’s were supporting either Socks services or http, one used for all kinds of file and data transfer and IM software, and the other used for browsing. So if one needed to browse something, he needed to connect to a “browsing ISP” or vice versa. This is something the support staff mostly isn’t aware of. Most of them know the routine stuff that sorts out most problems with domestic internet users. But when it comes to network troubleshooting, there’s a lot to be desired in terms of domain knowledge on the ISP support end.

Couldn’t it all have been avoided by just having a good enough backup? After all, backups are the backbone of any professional organization. Ask any programming guru, any network or database administrator or any smart data store manager and you’ll know they have a fair collection of backups. So when a new version fails or if a potential problem in an older version actually pops up, they have something to hold themselves together. Every software company has at least one back up Internet connection, or at least one connection available on a phone call. That’s something we PC-kids call a ‘Simple Failover Strategy.’ To put it straight, in the internet world, if you’re not backing up your work, you’re sure to land in trouble. Ironically, these simple rules could not make it to the priority list of our IT think tanks, and that too at the federal level. With SMW 3 already overloaded, no alternative connectivity solutions were sought as late as July last year when construction of SEA-ME-WE 4, a $500 million project was approved by a consortium of 14 countries. Pakistan was to bear five percent of the cost for its share in the bandwidth. The project is estimated to be completed in December this year. Meanwhile, alternative connectivity was provided via Fibre Link Around Globe (FLAG), a smaller capacity cable with fewer recipients. But with the recent breakdown in the Internet connectivity, one feels all these arrangements are in vain.

When these lines are being written, this is the 10th day of virtual Internet blackout in the country, the fault area has been narrowed in to a 20 km piece. The weather is severe and the testing requires each and every meter to be tested. So it’s quite logical that the technicians have forecasted another 5 days for fully repairing the damage. Fascinatingly, our IT ministry has forecasted only a day is left for the problem to resolve. The base of their claim is unknown, but it only goes to show that it is the same attitude of dissipating misleading information that has lead the country to its worst ever internet crisis. Attracting foreign and local investors by spending huge sums of tax-payers’ money on the backing of such ill-planned network was certainly a wrong call whose damages are almost irreparable. For a country which claims over 10 million unique web surfers, a single connection to the outside world was thought sufficient. What could happen if the solitary connection breaks was anyone’s guess and now experience. And when something as inevitable actually materializes, one helplessly recalls what we know as Murphy’s Law which says, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong!”

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One Response

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  1. Shakir said, on July 29, 2005 at 13:03

    very good blog , nicely cited the even pic of SEA CABLE, there is plan for a back up cable from gawadar to fujairah (UAE)


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