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Asia quake forces reboot in age of communication technology

Computers down; many workers go back to old devices

Rescue workers searched for survivors after an offshore earthquake shook Taiwan on Tuesday. Two were killed, and computer communications were all but shut down in most of the region. (FRANK LIN/REUTERS)

BANGKOK -- It was a tsunami for the digital age, a collapse of the virtual world that radiated through much of Asia and beyond.

After an earthquake off the southern coast of Taiwan, people woke yesterday to find themselves without e-mail messages or the Internet and, in some cases, without telephone connections, cut off from the rest of the world.

The earthquake, which struck late Tuesday, ruptured two of the undersea cables that are part of a communications system that circles the globe. Coming on the second anniversary of the Asian tsunami that took 230,000 lives, it was a reminder of the world's increasing dependence on communications technology.

Two residents were killed and more than 40 were injured in the tremor, registering 6.7 in Richter-scale magnitude, that hit offshore, near the southern Taiwanese town of Hengchun.

As many as a dozen fiber-optic cables cross the ocean floor south of Taiwan, carrying traffic through China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, the United States, and the island itself. Chunghwa Telecom Co., Taiwan's largest phone company, said that the quake damaged several of them, and that repairs may take two to three weeks.

Taiwan lost almost all of its telephone capacity to Japan and mainland China. Service to the United States also was hard hit, with 60 percent of capacity lost.

Later yesterday, Chunghwa said that connections to the United States, China, and Canada had been mostly restored, but that 70 percent of the capacity to Japan was still down, as was 90 percent of the capacity to Southeast Asia.

Financial companies and technology services suffered most directly. Banking and securities trading were all but paralyzed. Operations from travel agencies to newspapers to schools struggled.

"You don't realize until you miss it how much you rely heavily on technology," said Andrew Clarke, a sales trader in Hong Kong. "Stuff you took for granted has been taken away and you realize, ah, back to the old way, using mobiles."

"I'm completely dependent on the Internet," said Robert Halliday, an American writer based in Bangkok. "If the Internet goes down for half a day, people can just stay in bed in terms of getting any work done."

Yesterday, he was stymied in trying to get information for a review he was writing of a Romanian DVD. Just a few years ago, such a review could have meant several hours in a library.

In the United States, Cisco Systems Inc.'s Linksys unit warned that customer support call centers for its home networking gear had been affected, but that other companies with overseas call centers had reported few problems.

Tyco International Ltd. said its cable-laying ship, based in Taiwan, was heading to the area for repairs. "Pretty much everything south of Taiwan has been reported at fault," said Frank Cuccio, vice president of marine services at the Tyco Telecommunications unit, based in Morristown, N.J.

Many Asian enterprises found that they could barely function without the Internet.

In Beijing, Wang Yifei, an independent television producer, sent telephone messages when her Internet connection was down.

"I've been complaining about this all day," she said. "This high-tech world of ours. It didn't happen in the old days."

In Hong Kong, Niall Phelan, the creative director of APV, a media production company based there, said he usually received about 300 e-mail messages a day. Yesterday, he said, he got none.

Without e-mail, he was back to the old-fashioned way of communicating, by telephone.

In Manila, Abe Olandres, who owns and runs a Internet-hosting company, just about gave up. He said he planned to try a Wi-Fi hot spot in a coffee shop after struggling at the office all day. "This is killing me," he said.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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