Months-long internet outage highlights Taiwan’s network vulnerabilities
MATSU, Taiwan – For several weeks in February, the local telecommunications office, an unremarkable grey building on the island of Nangan, became its hottest hangout spot.
Even after the Chunghwa Telecom outpost shuttered its gates at 9pm, residents would don their jackets and huddle outside with their mobile phones and laptops, braving the cold winds to squat on the steps in the dark.
They were there to use its Wi-Fi network to get online.
It was an inconvenient but necessary measure after the only two submarine Internet cables to the outlying Taiwanese Matsu archipelago were severed, most likely by Chinese vessels, within days of one another in early February.
Immediately, the 14,000 residents in the archipelago, of which Nangan is part, were knocked offline.
Chunghwa Telecom’s service worked, albeit slowly, as it relies on older microwave radio transmission technology. The telco, which is partly owned by the government, had set it up as backup for the residents.
Taiwan’s National Communications Commission suspects that the cables were damaged by two Chinese vessels, the first a fishing vessel on Feb 2 and the second a cargo ship on Feb 8.
An official who was briefed on the incident told the Associated Press that Taiwan’s coast guard trailed the fishing vessel, which cut the first cable before it returned to Chinese waters. Authorities also discovered two Chinese ships in the area where the cables were cut, said AP.
The government agency said that there is no evidence the cables were severed intentionally, but officials and security analysts say that the frequency with which they are damaged is cause for concern – and has national security implications for Taiwan.
Based on data from Chunghwa Telecom, the two cables connecting Matsu have been cut 27 times in the past five years, by vessels of unknown origin.
That is “much higher” than in other places in the world, said Dr Kenny Huang, CEO of the non-profit Taiwan Network Information Centre, which is partially funded by the government.
“There are around 400 submarine Internet cables worldwide, and about 50 to 100 cable outages are caused by ships and their anchors every year. You can see the abnormalities from Matsu’s data,” he said.
The fact that Matsu’s cables were cut in quick succession is also unusual, he said. “This situation cannot be considered normal under any circumstances,” he said.
Dr Huang noted that the cutting of Internet cables could be a “useful tool” for China to exercise what is known as “grey zone” aggression against Taiwan, the use of unconventional tactics to subdue foes while stopping short of an actual war.
Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province, and has never ruled out the use of force to reunify with it.
Over the past three years, China has ramped up diplomatic, economic and military pressures against Taiwan, including making regular incursions into the waters and airspace near the island.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not immediately respond to The Straits Times’ request for comment.
For Matsu, the earliest date that an international cable-laying ship can make repairs is April 20, which means services are expected to be fully restored only in May. Taiwan does not have the capacity to fix broken undersea cables on its own.
Until then, residents must make use of the limited Internet service powered by the backup microwave transmission, which is beamed from just outside the capital of Taipei 200km away.
Both surfing speeds and reach have significantly improved since early March, when Chunghwa Telecom expanded the bandwidth of its microwave signaling system.
That means residents no longer have to camp out at the telecom office, even if the situation is still far from ideal.
High-resolution videos and online games are out of reach, and texting remains stalled during peak hours, but at least they are “now connected to the world”, said Mr Hank Li, a 23-year-old soldier stationed in Nangan. Taiwan’s military maintains a major presence across Matsu.
“I can also open text messages and e-mails with photos now, which was impossible just a few weeks ago. Before, the buffering icon would just keep loading, and then the download would fail altogether,” he told ST.
Equally relieved are the 33-year-old husband-and-wife owners of Good Day Homestay, a bed and breakfast which relies on social media apps such as Line and Instagram to handle guest room bookings.
“Guests would make phone calls and cancel their stays because they say they don’t want to vacation somewhere with no Internet,” said Mr Lin Cheng-hao. “Actually, we’ve faced outages many times in the past few years, but this is the longest and most serious.”
Mr Lii Wen, the head of the Matsu chapter of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said that the situation serves as a “warning signal” for the whole of Taiwan, which is connected to the world via 15 undersea cables.
“If an Internet outage can happen on Matsu, the same thing could happen for Taiwan,” he said, adding that the island needs to strengthen the security of its communications.
Analysts had in the past said that any concerns over Taiwan’s network vulnerabilities are very real.
A 2022 report by researchers at George Mason University’s Mercatus Centre in the United States, which analyzed open-source data, noted that key digital infrastructure such as submarine cable landing stations are among China’s “strategic points of interests”.
Submarine cable landing stations are buildings where the cables come to shore and connect to a local network.
Taiwan is now taking a leaf out of Ukraine’s handbook by setting up a back-up satellite Internet network, which has proven to be crucial in keeping locals online amid Russia’s invasion.
It is set to trial a NT$550 million (S$24.67 million) satellite program that aims to keep Taiwan’s command systems running if conventional connections get cut, the digital ministry said in September 2022.
“The Internet used in Taiwan relies heavily on undersea cables, so if (attackers) cut off all the cables, they would cut off all of the Internet there,” said Dr Lennon Chang, an Asia cybersecurity expert at Australia’s Deakin University.
“It makes sense for the government to have alternative forms of communication ready for emergency situations.”
For now, Matsu food vendor Liu Kuo-chun, 58, who sells deep-fried snacks in Nangan’s Jieshou village, is looking forward to the day when the submarine cables are finally fixed.
“I just want to watch my television dramas online,” he said.
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