Although the Internet has come to be seen as ubiquitous, people in the Middle East and India were reminded Friday of just how the Web is delivered to their homes and businesses when three key undersea cables were severed within a span of 38 minutes, knocking a large portion of users offline until traffic could be re-routed. The cables remain on the sea bed today as France Telecom Marine deploys its "Hector" remote-control submarine to find the ends of its two cables and bring them to the surface, where they can be repaired on board the company's C/S Raymond Croze 3,200-ton cable maintenance ship. (A second ship operated by India's Reliance Globalcom is en route to repair the third cable, NetworkWorld reported today.)

France Telecom Marine has five Hectors, which the company uses to lay, bury, inspect and maintain its undersea cables. The 13.8-foot (4.2-meter) long submarines can dive as deep as 6,562 feet (2,000 meters) and have their own sonar, video cameras and cable-tracking systems.

The process of finding and repairing the cables—which are less than an inch in diameter and include the SEA-ME-WE4 (South East Asia-Middle East-West Europe 4 project), SEA-ME-WE3 and FLAG (Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe)—is likely to take several days to complete, given that the ends of the severed cables had yet to be located as of today. It is unclear exactly how the cables, which lie in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia, were cut; media outlets are reporting that they may have been sliced by an undersea earthquake [see's in-depth report on earthquakes] or by an anchor dropped by a tanker ship that dragged them along the sea floor. France Telecom Marine estimates that the SEA-ME-WE4 could be back in operation by Thursday, and that work on the SEA-ME-WE3 could be finished by New Year's eve. It is  not clear when the FLAG cable, a 17,400 mile (28,000 kilometer)- long submarine communications link, will be repaired.

The cable cuts have affected most parts of the Middle East, but Egypt has reportedly been able to restore most of its communications by re-routing network traffic. The damage to the SEA-ME-WE3, SEA-ME-WE4 and FLAG cables, owned by different consortiums, caused varying degrees of disruption from Zambia to India and Taiwan, the Associated Press reported Sunday.

This latest large-scale Internet outage is the second that the region has suffered this year. Millions of Internet users in the Middle East and Asia were unable to access the Web after two underwater Internet cables were ruptured on January 30 (a third cable, this one in the Persian Gulf , was cut in early February and compounded the problem), Egyptian news source Al-Ahram Weekly reported on its Web site at the time. One of the cables, which are 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) apart, belongs to FLAG Telecom, the other to a consortium of 16 telecommunication companies in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The third undersea Internet cable, FALCON, which was cut 31.1 miles (50 kilometers) off Dubai, also belongs to FLAG Telecom. An Egyptian committee formed to find the cause of the problem ruled out a ship's anchor in the earlier incident because no ships were reported in the vicinity of the severed cables at the time. It was more likely caused by an underwater earthquake, according to Al-Ahram Weekly.

Image courtesy of France Telecom Marine