How easy is it to disconnect India from the internet? That question received an answer of sorts last week, when not one, not two, but four cables connecting Asia with the key ‘content’ centres of Europe and the US were severed due to multiple reasons.
Three of them were severed near Egypt and the fourth, the ‘I-ME-WE’ cable, was severed near the coast of Mumbai. If you live in India and felt little impact apart from perhaps brief slowdowns now and then, that’s because Indian carriers most affected by the outage —BhartiBSE -1.77 %, Tata, and Vodafone — rapidly switched their traffic to alternative, trouble-free routes.
“Not all that easy, thankfully,” seems the brief answer to the question posed in the first sentence of this feature.
“Indian users have been less affected, at least so far,” says Punit Garg, president and chief executive of global enterprise business unit of Reliance CommunicationsBSE 8.02 %, which owns the FLAG cable system, which remained unaffected by the recent incidents. However, he points out that a number of holidays in the week meant that corporate networks were less tested than they normally would have been.
“The true effects on corporate customers and corporate networks will only be known from Monday or Tuesday,” he says. “We have activated 300 Gbps of capacity for carriers affected by the outages and provided them alternative backup routes to Europe from India and the Middle East,” claims Garg.
Late last year, Renesys, a consultancy that looks at connectivity and other issues around the internet and business, published a map that rates countries on the risk they faced of being disconnected altogether.
The basis of their ranking was the number of domestic internet service providers (ISPs) in each country which can directly access foreign providers. Given the relatively larger number of such providers in this country, Renesys ranked India as being at ‘low’ risk of disconnection.
That’s good news, but it’s not the whole story. There are around 175 ISPs listed on the telecom regulator’s website, but there are actually far fewer submarine cables (12 in number) through which these service providers physically connect to the internet, with more than one provider sharing a cable. Cutting a single cable can knock out subscribers of more than one provider.
“In locations like India, where all international traffic is handled over a handful of submarine cables, it is important to understand that multiple providers have access to multiple submarine cables in the event one of them goes down,” says Doug Madory, a senior analyst at Renesys. “If a company has two ISPs but they are both dependent on the same submarine cable, then the company has not achieved much in the way of internet transit diversity.”
But there are actually even more bottlenecks and to understand why, it’s perhaps more helpful to put that question of risk of disconnection in a different way. Disconnecting the internet for an entire country, after all, is a fairly dramatic event. So, how much does it cost to connect to the internet, in India, as compared with the West?
Where do the Costs Lie?
Retail competition over the years has reduced prices of bandwidth sharply. But India is still well behind other countries when it comes to the relative cost of a broadband plan.
According to International Telecommunication Union’s annual Measuring the Information Society report, the cost of an entry-level broadband plan in India accounts for about 5.5% of Indian per capita income. In comparison, a similar plan accounts for 0.5-0.8% of per capita income in countries such as Singapore, the US or the UK. India lags behind countries such as Sri Lanka (2.9%) and Malaysia (3.2%)