What Burma’s Bad Internet and the NSA Surveillance Scandal Have in Common

What's to come?
Nov. 27 2013 10:17 AM

Down to the Wires

Burma’s shaky Internet connection and the NSA surveillance scandal have more in common than you think.

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Internet cafe visitors browse Burma's often painfully slow Web in Yangon on May 31, 2013.

Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

In late July, strange things started happening to Burma’s Internet. For about two weeks, the network—already sluggish at the best of times—sputtered and slowed to a crawl before going completely dark in the early morning of Aug. 5. The blackout came after numerous disruptions in the power supply to underground fiber-optic cables cut the country off from its only international subsea Internet cable.

The timing of the outages, close to the 25th anniversary of the massive 1988 democratic uprising that brought activist Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence, raised a few eyebrows, but government engineers in the now nominally democratic state repeatedly denied any foul play, pointing instead to technical problems with the country’s Internet. After all, years of mismanagement by a paranoid military dictatorship had ravaged every sector in the country, including telecommunications.

When the Internet continued to suffer minor outages and slowdowns throughout the fall, many started asking: Why does Burma’s Internet break so much? The answer, surprisingly, tells us a lot about the current National Security Agency surveillance scandal in the United States.

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People frequently think of the Internet as a gigantic cloud, magically connecting the world. In reality, at its core, the Internet is a series of long, hard wires that wrap around the world, connecting country to country and continent to continent. (The late Sen. Ted Stevens was sort of right!) Telecommunications infrastructure hasn’t changed much since the time of the telegraph—the materials in the cables have simply been upgraded from copper to fiberglass. The more long-haul international Internet links a country has with the outside world, the more stable its Internet is.

Burma officially hooks into the worldwide Internet in three places. The majority of traffic is routed over one “dry” link to Thailand and one “wet,” or subsea, cable connection known as SEA-ME-WE 3. A meager overland link to China also exists but has operated intermittently over the past few months because of upgrades, flooding, and technical glitches.

For scale, there are 10 subsea cables that connect into the New York City area alone. The United States has about 50 submarine cables in addition to a vast amount (currently not publicly quantified) of cross-border terrestrial Internet links.

Unlike the United States, Burma has never had an extensive wired infrastructure. Internet penetration rates are thought to be about 1 percent, but only 1 percent of all homes in the country have a fixed phone line. Cable television network? Forget it. Myanmar Post and Telecommunications, the government body that oversees the construction and functioning of the Internet, is essentially wiring the country from scratch.

As more users log on during the day in Burma, the Internet gets slower and slower, because there’s just not enough domestic fiber (bandwidth in the domestic network) in the country to support the amount of people going online. (Although YouTube isn’t censored anymore, streaming a YouTube video is practically impossible in downtown Yangon unless you’re sitting at one of the city’s most elite hotels.) In the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber in the ground, some of which are never even used.

The construction and security of Internet cables is surprisingly low, even in countries with highly developed networks. Heavy rains or a shovel striking a cable can knock out a terrestrial link for days, while a rogue anchor or an undersea earthquake can rupture a submarine cable, leaving it out of commission for anywhere from three to six weeks. Redundancy on internal networks is also key to minimizing outages. If one cable breaks, as long as there are alternate routes for the data to take, users won’t feel much of a slowdown. In a system as sparse as Burma’s, though, losing one major connection can wreak havoc on the network.

The physical connections are important over in the States, too: Regardless of whether you’re using cable, DSL, or fiber, long cords snake out of your home, travel under city streets and over bridges, and link your modem to the network of your Internet service provider. If, for example, you want to load your Gmail account but use Comcast as your home Internet provider, your Gmail account information, stored in a Google data center, needs to traverse Google’s physical network and get on to Comcast’s network in order to get to you.

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