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Asian Telecoms Outage Leads to Calls for Better Connections

Asia started a new business year without major hitches a week after a massive telecommunications outage caused by an earthquake. But as the region slowly recovers, experts call for more robust networks that can withstand disasters. VOA's Juliet Ye has this report from Hong Kong.

Ships are arriving off Taiwan's coast to repair vital undersea cables damaged by last week's powerful earthquake. But it could still take weeks before those cables are fixed.

The damage plunged much of Asia into a virtual telecommunications blackout for two days, with severely disrupted Internet and telephone connections.

Internet links and telephone lines have been partly restored but many connections are slow and patchy. On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government warned of Internet service congestion as businesses and schools re-open after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Governments, businesses and telecom experts say the earthquake shows Asia should be better prepared for similar incidents.

Stephen Yip, Hong Kong's secretary for commerce, industry and technology, says it is time to find alternatives to current telecommunications systems.

"I think it is important for cable operators, the Internet service providers the government … and the telecommunications companies to consider what happened and see what we need to do to improve the situation," he said. "For example, whether we need to consider other alternatives, better back-up systems, through other means such as satellite transmissions."

A prolonged telecommunications disruption would mean billions of dollars in losses for the region's businesses, especially if banking, foreign exchange and stock trading operations are affected. The losses from last week's outages are still being counted.

Thousands of kilometers of undersea fiber optic cables link Asia with the rest of the world. The cables damaged by the Taiwan earthquake were major connections to North America, and also main lines connecting North Asia to Southeast Asia.

But telecommunications experts say the search for new and more reliable technology could take years and involve billions of dollars in investment.

Taiwan's biggest phone company, Chunghwa Telecom, says it has no plans to lay new cables because severe disruptions such as last week's are rare.

"From the telecommunications operators' point of view, I think they know it is very important to have reliable network," said Sam Chan, an engineering professor at the University of Hong Kong. "By reliable network I mean the network that is able to survive any disruptions. We have quite a lot of research on survivable networks or self-building networks. I think the technology or theory is already there, but the operators just have to put into practice."

In one of few new investments in the region, the U.S. company Verizon, working with China Telecom and China Netcom, this year will start laying undersea cables linking China and the United States. Verizon says the project will increase the cable capacity linking the two countries by 60 times, and cost more than $500 million.