NANGAN, Taiwan (AP) – Over the past month, bed and breakfast owner Chen Yu-lin has had to tell his guests he can’t provide them with internet.
Others living in Matsu, one of Taiwan’s outlying islands closer to neighboring China, struggled to pay electricity bills, get a doctor’s appointment or receive a package.
To connect to the outside world, Matsu’s 14,000 residents rely two submarine internet cables leading to the main island of Taiwan. The National Communications Commission, citing the island’s telecommunications service, blamed two Chinese ships for cutting the cables. It said a Chinese fishing vessel was suspected of cutting the first cable about 50 kilometers (31 miles) offshore. Six days later, on February 8, a Chinese cargo ship intercepted the second, the NCC said.
The Taiwanese government stopped short of calling it a deliberate act by Beijing, and there is no direct evidence to suggest that Chinese ships were responsible.
In the meantime, islanders have been forced to connect to limited Internet via microwave radio transmission, a more mature technology, as a backup. That means you can wait hours to send a text. Calls were dropping and videos could not be viewed.
“Many tourists will cancel their booking because there is no internet. Nowadays, the Internet plays a very big role in people’s lives,” says Chen, who lives in Baigan, one of Matsu’s main residential islands.
In addition to disrupting lives, the seemingly innocuous loss of Internet cables has enormous national security implications.
As the large-scale invasion of Ukraine demonstrated, Russia has made the destruction of Internet infrastructure a key part of its strategy. Some experts suspect that China may have deliberately cut the cables as part of its encroachment on the autonomous island, which it considers part of its territory, and would re-connect by force if necessary.
China regularly sends military aircraft and naval vessels to Taiwan as part of a tactic to intimidate the island’s democratic government. Concerns about Chinese invasion and Taiwan’s preparedness to counter it have increased since the Ukrainian war.
The cables have been cut a total of 27 times in the past five years, but it is unclear which country the ships were from, according to data from Chunghwa Telecom.
Taiwan’s coast guard chased the fishing vessel that cut the first cable on Feb. 2, but it returned to Chinese waters, according to an official who was briefed on the incident and was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Authorities have located two Chinese ships in the area where the cables were cut, based on data from an automated identification system similar to GPS that pinpoints the vessel’s location.
“We cannot rule out that China deliberately destroyed them,” said Su Jun, a defense expert at the National Defense and Security Research Institute, a government think tank, citing a study that found only China and Russia had the technical capabilities. do it “Taiwan should invest more resources in cable repair and protection.”
Internet cables, which can be 20 millimeters to 30 millimeters (0.79 in-1.18 in) wide, are sheathed in steel armor in shallow waters where they are more likely to collide with ships. Despite the protection, the cables can be cut quite easily by ships and their anchors or by fishing boats using steel nets.
However, “this level of disruption is highly unusual for a cable, even in the shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait,” said Jeff Houston, chief scientist at the Asia-Pacific Network Information Center, a nonprofit organization that manages and distributes Internet resources such as . IP addresses for the region.
Without stable internet, cafe owner Chiu Sih-Chi said visiting a doctor for her young son’s cold has become a struggle, as they first have to visit the hospital just to get an appointment.
The owner of the breakfast shop said he has lost thousands of dollars in the past few weeks because he usually takes online orders. Customers would come to her booth expecting the food to be ready when she hadn’t even seen their messages.
Faced with unusual difficulties, the Matsus have come up with various ways to organize their lives.
One couple planned to deal with the upcoming peak season by having one person stay in Taiwan, logging into their reservation system and relaying the information to the other via text message. The woman, Lin Hsian Wen, extended her holiday in Taiwan during the off-season when she heard that the internet was down at home and was returning to Matsu at the end of the week.
Some enterprising residents went to the other coast to buy SIM cards from Chinese telecoms, although they only work well in places closer to the Chinese coast, which is only 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) away from its closest point.
Others, like bed and breakfast owner Cao Li Yu, went to Chunghwa Telecom’s office to use a Wi-Fi hotspot the company had set up for locals to use before then.
“I was going to work for (Chunghwa Telecom),” Cao joked.
Chunghwa had built a microwave transmission device as a backup for the residents. Broadcasting from Yangmingshan, a mountain not far from Taiwan’s capital Taipei, the relay transmits signals about 200 kilometers (124 miles) to Matsu. The speeds have noticeably increased since Sunday, residents say.
Wang Chung-ming, head of Lienchiang County, as the Matsu Islands are officially called, said he and a Matsu lawmaker went to Taipei to ask for help shortly after the internet outage and were told they would have priority in future internet. backup plans.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs has publicly solicited proposals from low-Earth-orbit satellite operators to provide an Internet backup plan in the wake of Russia’s cyberattacks during its invasion of Ukraine, the ministry’s head said. Audrey Tang told The Washington Post last fall. However, the plan remains at an impasse because Taiwan law requires suppliers to be at least 51% owned by a domestic shareholder.
A spokesman for the Digital Ministry referred questions to the National Communications Commission about the progress of the duplicate projects. The NCC said it will install a surveillance system for the submarine cables, while relying on microwave transmission as a backup option.
Many Pacific island nations depended on satellites before they started using Internet cables, and some still depend on them as backups, said Jonathan Brewer, a telecommunications consultant from New Zealand who works in Asia and the Pacific.
There is also the question of cost. Repairing the cables is expensive, with an initial estimate of 30 million New Taiwan dollars ($1 million) for the ships’ work alone.
“Chinese boats that damaged the cables should be held accountable and pay compensation for expensive repairs,” said Wen Li, head of the Matsu division of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
Wang, head of Lienjiang County, said he noted the cables during a recent visit to China, where he met with a China Mobile executive. They offered to send technicians to help. But restitution, he said, would require hard evidence 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 the cable ships can arrive is April 20, as there are a limited number of ships that can do the job.
A month without functional internet has its upsides. Chen Yu-lin, the owner of the bed and breakfast, felt more at ease.
The first week was difficult, but Chen quickly got used to it. “From a life perspective, I think it’s a lot more comfortable because you get less calls,” she said, adding that she spends more time with her son, who usually plays online games.
At a web cafe where off-duty soldiers played offline games, the effect was the same.
“Our relationship has become a little closer,” said a soldier who gave only his first name, Samuel. “Because usually when there’s an Internet, everyone stays to themselves, and now we’re more connected.”
Associated Press video reporter Taising Wu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.
Find more about AP’s Asia-Pacific coverage here