Morale: The Unstoppable Signal From Space

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February 5, 2008: On January 30th, two fiber optic cables off the coast of Egypt were cut, apparently by a ships anchor. Most U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't really notice, although most local civilian Internet users did get hit with slowdowns, and lots of European and American sites were difficult to reach. The American military personnel were immune from the disaster because they use a lot of satellite links for their Internet access. This is often the only way to get access for troops in remote areas. Moreover, one of the two private Department of Defense networks (the classified SIPRNet) uses satellite links and is not connected to the regular Internet. The unclassified NIPRNet does use the regular Internet, and was hurt by the cable problem in those areas where NIPRNet used fiber optic links.

The two cables, each owned by a competing company, carried most of the Internet traffic to the Middle East and India. Normally, ships would not anchor near the cables, but storms in the area had forced some ships to do so. It took a few days for the Internet to do what it was designed for, to route message traffic around the cuts and rebuild service. For most Internet users in the Middle East and India, the Internet slowed down for a day or so, and many sites were often unavailable. For about two weeks, it will take longer to move large files.

For troops in combat zones, the cable cuts were a minor inconvenience. That's because the satellite links are expensive, and users are largely restricted to email and some web surfing. Not a lot of real-time video or large file transfers. The troops hurt most by the cable accident are those at the larger bases that normally have faster Internet service, because of access to fiber optic trunk lines coming in via the undersea cables. The two cables off Egypt are expected to be repaired within a week or two. There are repair crews stationed all over the world for this sort of thing, and ships ready to go out and lift the cable out of the water so it can be repaired and put back on the sea bottom.

For Indian users, things got worse a few days later as another fiber optic cable off the Indian coast failed. This is a big deal in India, where software development for foreign firms (largely in Europe and North America) is a multi-billion dollar business. This work is dependent on fast Internet connections, for moving large files back and forth (especially for firms developing CGI for movies) and videoconferencing (the easiest way to keep the Indian engineers and developers in touch with their foreign clients).

What happened to India is something the military will face in the next decade. Increasingly, moving large data and video files long distances is part of normal military operations. That's because a lot of the planning, and actual fighting (via UAV operators in the United States controlling aircraft over Iraq and Afghanistan) only works if lots of data can be moved quickly half way around the world. The U.S. Department of Defense is building dozens of new communications satellites to support all this. When these data links aren't needed for military operations, they will be available to let troops videoconference with their families back home.

 


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