Asia Slowly Recovers From Massive Telecom Outages

Asia was slowly recovering Thursday from one of the biggest telecommunication outages to hit the region in years as crews scrambled to rig up new telephone and Internet networks to replace those snapped by a Taiwanese earthquake.

Repair ships were cruising toward Taiwanese waters to fix the fiber-optic cables damaged in Tuesday's 6.7-magnitude earthquake that struck off the island's southern tip, killing two people. The undersea cables feed China, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia and America.

The four vessels -- sailing from Japan, Singapore and the Philippines -- would arrive next Tuesday, said Lin Jen-hung, vice-general manager of Chunghwa Telecom Co., Taiwan's biggest phone company. The crews would need to find the fault, survey the conditions and pull up the cables for repair -- a job that could take weeks.

Telecom companies were able to partially restore service by using undamaged cables and satellites to reroute traffic.

Hong Kong said its roaming and long-distance telephone service was restored. Japan's major carriers also said most of their international and fixed-line telephone services were back up.

Chunghwa restored 95 percent of Internet service and 80 percent of phone service to Taiwan by early Thursday afternoon, said Wu Ming-chih, another official at the company.

"Our next target is reaching 100 percent, but that will only succeed once the repairs to the undersea cables are completed, at least two weeks from now," Wu said.

Most international Internet data and voice calls travel as pulses of light through hundreds of undersea fiber optic cables crisscrossing the globe. The cables are often owned by groups of telecom companies, who share costs and capacity.

Analysts have said the cables -- clusters of glass fibers enclosed in protective material -- frequently get cut and disrupted, but there's usually enough backup capacity on other lines to keep traffic flowing. But Tuesday's quake broke several sections of the cables at once, disrupting Internet traffic across the Pacific.

"Cables break all over the place, from sharks nibbling, anchors dragged across. The problem is if there is no redundancy through multiple cable providers, you've lost your lifeline," said Markus Buchhorn, an information technology expert at Australia National University.

Chunghwa estimated its revenue loss from the earthquake damage at about NT$100 million (US$3.06 million; euro2.33 million). Repairing the cables would cost about NT$50 million (US$1.53 million; euro1.16 million), the company said in a filing to the Taiwan Stock Exchange.

The outage kept hundreds of thousands from surfing the Internet or calling overseas. E-mails piled up in accounts that couldn't be opened. Stock traders couldn't get updated information about market movements.

"Many lost the opportunity to make fast money," said Francis Lun, general manager at Fulbright Securities in Hong Kong.

"I haven't experienced anything like this before," Lun added. "We've become too dependent on these optic fibers -- a few of them get damaged, and everything collapses."

At a cyber cafe in Hong Kong, 28-year-old Daniel Lee said he was suffering serious Web withdrawal because he couldn't play any of the online games he usually spends eight to 10 hours a day playing.

"Most online games are routed through Taiwan, and now I can't play any of them. I can't contact a lot of people because my email is down. It's a hassle and it's depressing, but I can't do anything about it," said Lee, who's unemployed.

At Hong Kong's airport, more than 100 people had to line up at Taiwan's China Airlines' counters for manual check-in services because the computer systems weren't working, broadcaster Commercial Radio reported.

A woman who picked up the phone at the airline's inquiries hot line said the computer system had been down since Wednesday afternoon, affecting more than 10 flights.

"We had to switch to manual services because the system in Taipei was affected by the quake," said the woman, who only gave her surname Sze. "But all our computers are running normally now."

Phone calls between Taiwan and Hong Kong started going through on Thursday afternoon. Hong Kong telecom official Au Man-ho told reporters that six of the seven major cable systems serving the city were "completely damaged."

Employees at China's biggest phone company, China Telecom Corp., said Internet and phone connections were still slow. They refused to give any more details or say how many people had been affected.

South Korea's biggest carrier, KT, said more than half of its 92 damaged lines should be fixed by the end of Thursday. One of the company's customers was the Foreign Ministry, which recovered its service.

In Japan, major carriers KDDI Corp. and NTT Communications said most fixed-line telephone services were up and running.

NTT spokeswoman Akiko Suzaki said that a full recovery would require a relaying of undersea cables and could take weeks.