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Is a U.S. Internet blackout possible?

A fault in Pakistan's fiber optic cable crippled its Internet access for 12 days. Could something similar happen in the U.S.? Experts discuss the possibilities and how companies should prepare.

Being offline for only a few hours is tough to fathom for any organization, but recently the entire country of Pakistan experienced life without the Internet for 12 long days.

Pakistan temporarily lost its only data link to the outside world due to a fault in an underwater fiber optic cable.

While the South Asian nation's problem has since been remedied, it's food for thought for the U.S. networking industry.

According to Martin Zook, editor of the Global IT Consultancy Report, even though the likelihood of a similar occurrence in the U.S. is extremely low, there's still room for error.

"I don't want to say never because they said the Titanic would never sink," Zook said, "but I would think it's extremely unlikely, especially with the infrastructure having so much redundancy and backup."

Alan Mauldin, senior research analyst with Washington, D.C.-based TeleGeography Inc., said while the U.S. has roughly 35 submarine cables connecting it to the international Internet, Pakistan only has one. But he said the country is planning to install two more later this year.

Because of the deregulated telecommunications market in U.S., there are literally hundreds of providers, according to Mauldin, while Pakistan's market is more monopolized.

Mauldin said the U.S. Internet infrastructure is much more redundant than Pakistan's because most of the major cable configurations are built as rings, which offer more redundancy, and the sheer number of cables makes it difficult to bring down.

He added, "It's a totally different situation than Pakistan's one cable."

In fact, for a major Internet disruption like Pakistan's to occur in the U.S., Zook said it would have to involve an enormous terrorist-like attack on the physical infrastructure of the Internet to even partially disrupt service within a region.

While it's unclear whether countries are moving away from single-link systems akin to Pakistan's, Zook said this does point a finger at the weak link in the technology chain.

He said U.S. network providers' lines have been tested on several occasions and the worst that's happened is a delay -- never an outage.

Bedminster, N.J.-based AT&T is one of several Internet backbone facilities providers in the U.S. AT&T spokesman Jim Byrnes said a combination of its facilities with those of other providers could easily absorb all of the demand for Internet traffic in the U.S. if any single providers' network were to suddenly go out of service.

Due to regulations like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), Zook said, a line of communication takes less time to recommission than a year or two ago.

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He said SOX, the 2002 federal law enacted to ensure the accuracy of corporate financial data, requires more thought-out and tested provision to address such loss-of-service situations.

Zook said Pakistan's Internet crash does raise issues for companies with international locations, especially in Third-World countries.

"They can't change the infrastructure per se," he said. "But they -- especially the global players -- can determine whether they can shift work from one location to another in the case of an emergency."

However, Zook said companies shouldn't fret because network providers have an immense vested interest in keeping the lines up and running.

Zook said network providers can't anticipate downtime because it's too costly, it's bad for business and it tarnishes the company's reputation.

He added: "It's not an acceptable alternative nor does it reflect what IP system technology can do today -- which is supporting a global economy."

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