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Abandoned Anchor Cut Gulf Internet Cable

An abandoned anchor was responsible for cutting one of the undersea Internet cables severed last week, causing disruptions across the Middle East and parts of Asia, the cable's owner said Friday.

A FLAG Telecom repair crew discovered the anchor near where the fiber-optic cable was severed Feb. 1 in the Persian Gulf, 35 miles north of Dubai, between the Emirates and Oman.

Weighing more than 5.5 tons, the anchor has been pulled to the surface. The company did not immediately explain whether the anchor moved and snapped the cable or whether the cable itself was drifting when it was sliced.

It remains unclear exactly how any of the cuts occurred.

It also was unclear whether FLAG knew what vessel the anchor belonged to. Rough weather was reported nearby at the time of the cut, but conditions have improved since.

Meanwhile, a second FLAG repair ship continued work on two undersea cables that were cut Jan. 30. They are about 5 miles off the north coast of Egypt, near the port city of Alexandria, and run between Egypt and Palermo, on the Italian island of Sicily.

Repairs at both locations are expected to be done by Sunday.

One of the two Mediterranean cables was owned by FLAG. The other, identified as SEA-ME-WE 4, or South East Asia-Middle East-West Europe 4 cable, was owned by a consortium of 16 international telecommunication companies.

Egypt's telecommunication ministry said no ships were registered near the location at the time.

The cuts slowed businesses, hampered personal Internet usage and caused a flurry of Internet blogger speculation, including mentions of sabotage. Government authorities and FLAG, which stands for Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe, have refused to comment on the speculation.

Reports of additional cuts in Middle East Internet cables could not be confirmed.

FLAG, in a statement posted on the company Web site, said it has surveyed the cable cut off Egypt with remotely operated robots.

The FLAG spokesman said this week that it was laying a new cable underwater between Egypt and France that would be "fully resilient" against cuts such as last week's and "provide a diversity in routes."

He did not say what that resilience entailed, but said it would take months to set up the new cable.

"It is difficult to comment right now on this," said a FLAG spokesman, reached over the telephone. "We are doing our own investigation."

He spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with company policy.

Ovum analyst Matt Walker said undersea cable networks are highly vulnerable to deliberate attack and need enhanced security.

"If ports, railways, gas pipelines and other types of networks are being secured against possible sabotage, we must similarly increase the security of undersea optical highways," Walker said.

The cuts also underlined the threats that Internet disruptions could pose to organizations and businesses worldwide. Large-scale Internet disruptions are rare, but East Asia suffered nearly two months of outages and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in December 2006.

"The economic cost of losing, or even just slowing down, international communications is extremely high," said Walker. "This risk has to be factored into the calculations behind the investment level and design of undersea optical networks."

FLAG said it has fully restored circuits to some customers and switched others to alternative routes.

State Telecom Egypt said it sealed a $125 million contract Jan. 31 with French-American telecommunications equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent, for a new 1,900-mile-long undersea cable between Egypt and France.

Named TE North, it will link Sidi Kerir on Egypt's northern coast to the French port of Marseilles.

It will have multiple times the bandwidth capacity of existing cables and enable Telecom Egypt to "expand international connectivity, providing diversity from existing cable routes." Egyptian media have said the new Telecom cable would take more than 18 months to complete.