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Don't blame sharks for Asian Internet problems, experts say

Tim Hornyak | Jan. 22, 2015
It may not be Shark Week, but don't tell that to people in Vietnam.

It may not be Shark Week, but don't tell that to people in Vietnam.

Internet connections in the South East Asian nation have been affected by problems with the Asia America Gateway (AAG) submarine cable system for the fourth time in a year, according to local news outlets. The cause of the outages? Sharks, if you believe some online reports.

As AAG has the highest capacity of cable systems linking to Vietnam, faults can have big consequences for its international Internet bandwidth.

Vietnam's latest woes aren't the first time sharks have been made out to be a threat to the Internet. Last year, a 2010 YouTube video, showing a shark biting a submarine cable, made the rounds again, approaching a million views, when a Google official said the search giant wraps its ocean cables in Kevlar to defend against sharks.

With 99 percent of all transoceanic Internet traffic now flowing through submarine cables, how large of a threat are these big fish? Michael Costin, Chairman of the AAG Cable Consortium, says the damage was likely caused by ship anchors or fishing.

"AAG is not yet aware of the cause of the advised fault, but strongly believes it is not caused by sharks," Costin said via email. "Consistent with past experience, AAG believes it is most likely to be as a consequence of damage due to ship anchors or fishing, which reportedly are the predominant causes of faults experienced by submarine cables."

The fault occurred 117 kilometers off Vung Tau in the southern part of the country. Costin said the consortium's local partner is working with Vietnam's coast guard to protect the AAG cable.

He points to research by the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), a global industry group which claims that 65 to 75 percent of cable faults are due to anchoring and fishing. It found no cable problems that were caused by sharks from 2008 to 2013, compared to 11 cases between 1959 and 2006 as documented by the United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

The ICPC says advances in cable design have "effectively eliminated the problem." Modern cables wrap a core of optical fibers in multiple protective layers including a copper or aluminum tube as well as a fiberglass or plastic shell. Cables laid near shore or fishing grounds are often equipped with an additional shield of steel wires and buried.

"As for shark bites, its like a joke within this industry," Shota Masuda, a senior manager in NEC's Submarine Network Division, said via email. "Google made a remark last year about this, and this brought back a few papers written about this topic into the light, but in reality, sharks do not bite fiber optic submarine cables."


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