NANGAN, Taiwan (AP) — Last month, bed and breakfast owner Chen Yulin had to tell his guests that he couldn’t provide them with the Internet.
Others living on Matsu, one of Taiwan’s remote islands close to neighboring China, had to struggle paying electric bills, scheduling a doctor’s appointment or receiving a package.
To communicate with the outside world, Matsu’s 14,000 residents rely on Two submarine internet cables Which leads to the main island of Taiwan. A Chinese trawler made the first cable 50 kilometers (31 mi) out to sea. Six days later, on February 8, a second Chinese cargo ship cut through, according to Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest service provider and owner of the cables.
Meanwhile, the islanders were forced to connect to a limited internet via microwave radio transmission, a more mature technology, as a backup. This means one can wait hours for a text message to be sent. Calls will drop, and videos will become unwatchable.
“A lot of tourists will cancel their reservation because there is no internet. Nowadays, the internet plays a very big role in people’s lives,” said Chen, who lives in Bijan, one of the main residential islands of Matsu.
Aside from disrupting lives, the seemingly innocuous loss of Internet cables has enormous implications for national security.
As the massive invasion of Ukraine showed, Russia has made seizing internet infrastructure one of the key parts of its strategy. Some experts suspect that China may have deliberately cut the cables as part of its harassment of the self-ruled island, which it considers part of its territory, to be forcibly reunited if necessary.
China regularly Warplanes and naval ships are sent towards Taiwan As part of the island’s democratic government intimidation tactics. concerns about invading China, And Taiwan has been increasingly willing to put up with it since the war in Ukraine.
Chunghwa Telecom said cables had been cut 27 times in the past five years.
Taiwan’s coast guard gave chase to the fishing vessel that cut the first cable on Feb. 2, but returned to Chinese waters, according to a person who was briefed on the incident and not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
So far, the Taiwanese government has not pointed a finger at Beijing.
“We can’t rule out that China destroyed these on purpose,” said Su Tzu-yun, a defense expert at a government think tank, the Institute for Defense and National Security Research, citing research that only China and Russia have the technical capabilities. to do this. “Taiwan needs to invest more resources in cable repair and protection.”
Internet cables, which can be 20 mm to 30 mm (0.79 in to 1.18 in) wide, are sheathed with steel armor in shallow waters where they are most likely to be struck by ships. Despite the protection, the cables can be cut quite easily by ships and their anchors, or fishing boats using steel nets.
However, “this level of outage is very unusual for cable, even in the shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait,” said Jeff Huston, chief scientist at the Asia-Pacific Network Information Center, a nonprofit that manages and distributes Internet resources such as IP addresses for the region. .
Without a stable internet, Qiu Siqi, the owner of the coffee shop, said that seeing a doctor because of his young son’s cold became troublesome because they first had to visit the hospital for an appointment.
The owner of a breakfast shop said she has lost thousands of dollars in the past few weeks because she usually takes orders online. Customers would come to her booth expecting the food to be ready when she hadn’t even seen their messages.
Faced with extraordinary difficulties, the people of Matsuo came up with all kinds of ways to organize their lives.
One couple planned to deal with the upcoming peak season by having one person stay in Taiwan access their reservation system and pass the information on to the other via text. Wife Lin Hsien-wen extended her vacation in Taiwan during the off-season when she heard the internet at home was not working, and she will return to Matsuo later in the week.
Some enterprising residents have gone to the other shore to buy SIM cards from Chinese telecom companies, although those only work well in locations close to the Chinese coast, which is only 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) away at its closest point.
Others, like B&B owner Tsao Li-yu, would go to Chunghwa Telecom’s office to use a powerful Wi-Fi hotspot the company has set up for locals to use for the time being.
“I was going to work at (Chunghwa Telecom),” Cao joked.
Chunghwa has set up a microwave transmitter as a precaution for the residents. The relay from Yangmingshan, a mountain outside Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, broadcasts signals 200 kilometers (124 miles) away via Matsu. Residents said speeds have become significantly faster since Sunday.
Wang Zhongming, chief of Linxiang County, as the Matsu Islands are officially called, said he and a lawmaker from Matsu went to Taipei shortly after the internet went down to seek help, and were told they would get priority in any future internet backup plans.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs has publicly solicited bids from LEO satellite operators to provide internet in a back-up plan, after seeing Russian cyberattacks in the invasion of Ukraine, the ministry’s chief said, Audrey Tang, for The Washington Post last fall. However, the plan remains stalled as law in Taiwan requires service providers to be at least 51% owned by a local shareholder.
A spokesperson for the Digital Ministry directed questions about the progress of the backup plans to the National Communications Commission. NCC said it would install a monitoring system for submarine cables, relying on microwave transmission as a backup option.
Before they started using Internet cables, many Pacific Island nations relied on satellites — and some still do — as a backup, said Jonathan Brewer, a telecommunications consultant from New Zealand who works across Asia and the Pacific.
There is also the issue of cost. Repairing the cables is expensive, with early estimates at NT$30 million ($1 million) for ship work alone.
“Chinese boats that damaged cables should be held accountable and compensated for expensive repairs,” said Wen Liye, head of the Matsu branch of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
Wang, the Linxiang county chief, said he mentioned the cables on a recent visit to China, where he met an executive from China Mobile. They offered to send technicians to help. But he said compensation would require conclusive proof of who did it.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
For now, the only thing residents can do is wait. The earliest cable-laying ships could come on April 20, since there are a limited number of ships that can do the job.
A month without a functional internet also has its upsides. Qin Yulin, the owner of the bed and breakfast, felt more at peace.
It was hard the first week, but Chen got used to it quickly. “From a life perspective, I think it’s more comfortable because you get fewer calls,” he said, adding that he’s been spending more time with his son, who usually plays games online.
In a web café where off-duty soldiers were playing offline games, the effect was the same.
“Our relationships are getting a little closer,” said one of the soldiers, who gave only his first name, Samuel. “Because usually when there’s internet everyone keeps to themselves, and now we’re more connected.”
Associated Press video journalist Taijing Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.
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