Is the country’s BPO industry facing an information blackout threat from undersea sabotage? That might sound like a plot from a James Bond movie. While the facts are not clear, the fears are.
Five undersea cable disruptions in less than a fortnight have sent shivers down the spine of the country’s thriving business process outsourcing industry. They have raised questions on the back-up available for the telecom lifeline of the industry that employs more than six lakh people and exports about $10 billion-worth services.
Even as repairs were on at the site of an Internet cable cut in the Persian Gulf and another two north of Egypt in the previous week, news came last Monday of a fourth cut in the same region that disrupted voice traffic Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. A fifth cut was reported later from near Penang in Malaysia.
While the last ones were small, the coincidence of similar events largely in the same region raised eyebrows and conspiracy theories, given the location of the faults that lie close to politically sensitive regions like Iran, Iraq and Israel.
While no official reports of subversion have surfaced just yet, things are beginning to get suspicious,” wrote blogger Darren Murph at engadget.com. Stacey Higginbotham wrote in respected Silicon Valley site Gigaom.com that conspiracy theories ranged from suspecting Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to the US’s own Pentagon, apart from Islamic terrorists.
The three major faults were expected by authorities to have been repaired by Sunday but the country’s information technology (IT) and BPO industries spent an anxious fortnight because undersea cables are critical for export of computer files and voice-based call centre services.
Understandably, the industry is worried, although the big units in the field have multiple back-ups. “It certainly affects us. Larger BPOs have alternatives, but small and medium ones cannot provide for redundancy,” Ganesh Natarajan, managing director of Pune-based Zensar Technologies, told
"I hope the conspiracy theories are not true. If that happens, we are in big trouble."
Ganesh, who is also the chairman-designate of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), said as much as 85 per cent of India’s BPO firms employed less than 1,000 people and operated on cost ratios that cannot afford back-up lines or conventional telephone network calls.
Zensar itself has about 600 BPO employees and suspended a voice-based call centre operation for a few days after the Mediterranean disruption caused a drop in voice quality. However, IT projects are relatively safe because they do not involve constant interaction, especially voice calls.
Ganesh said several other companies in Pune were also affected by the latest disruptions.
“Not again”, screamed Yogesh, who manages a legal outsourcing company in Hyderabad, with clients in the UK and the US, after the last, minor cable cut was revealed.
The last time the undersea cable snapped near Alexandria port, the company was cut off from its clients for 36 hours before alternative arrangements could be put in place. It had to bear the brunt of client criticism.
Many BPO company executives in Hyderabad were unanimous that another cable break would adversely affect BPO companies.
However, large companies like Satyam were unaffected, as they have sufficient back-up.
The globe is criss-crossed by a network of undersea cables that carry information on ultra-thin optic-fibres encased in strong shells. While repairs are not unheard of, major disruptions took place as a strategic link off Egypt between the Western world and India through West Asia snapped, apparently caused by a ship dropping anchor near Alexandria.
One Mediterranean fault hit a cable link owned by UK-based FLAG Telecom, which is controlled by Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications group, while another hit SEA-ME-WE, which is run by a consortium of which Tata-owned VSNL is a part. A third cut hit FLAG’s network near Dubai while a fourth hit FLAG’s FALCON network near the Iranian coast. The fifth cut affected SEA-ME-WE again.
All that triggered speculation in Internet blogs of security breaches.
Voice and data links are also supplied by satellite-based networks, but cable links are said to be cheaper. As much as 90 per cent of Internet traffic is said to rely on sub-sea cables.
Sabotage theories are officially being discounted for now.
Large BPO companies have managed to restore their broadband connectivity using alternate backup arrangements. But less heavy-duty users like home surfers are finding it difficult to connect ever since the cable faults started.
“It is true that small companies are affected,” Som Mittal, NASSCOM’s new president, told reporters last Thursday, adding they were not prepared for redundancies in telecom bandwidth.
“We are obviously concerned, but the majority of them (members) do say there was no disruption,” Mittal added.
Some of the undersea data traffic to the US has been routed through the Pacific Ocean, instead of the usual Atlantic route. “There is no problem of connectivity in my office as we have five levels of back-up. But my Internet at home is not working,” said Raman Roy, chairman of BPO firm Quattro.
(Reporting by Narayanan Madhavan, Archana Khatri and Arun Kumar in Delhi, Ashok Das in Hyderabad and G.C. Shekhar in Chennai)