Posted by Ben Worthen

Reports that a fifth undersea communications cable in the Middle East has been damaged in less than a week — further compromising Internet access in countries there, and knocking Iran off the grid entirely – are triggering wild conspiracy theories about who’s at fault, from Islamic extremists to the CIA. But BizTech readers can proceed with global business as planned: the reports aren’t true.

Is this what’s cutting the cables?

So says Stephan Beckert, research director at TeleGeography, who studies these cables for a living. (Yes, there’s a chance Beckert is part of some vast conspiracy, but in this blog’s opinion, he knows what he’s talking about.) Beckert tells the Business Technology Blog that he hasn’t heard anything about a fifth cable from his sources in the industry and that the newspaper that reported the outage, the Khaleej Times in the United Arab Emirates, seems to have double counted two of the cables and missed a fourth one entirely. Beckert also tells us that one of the cut cables wasn’t cut at all – it’s down because of a power outage. And while Iran is experiencing Internet slowdowns just like the rest of the Middle East, it isn’t off line. (This site seems to be working fine.)

Beckert says that the most likely explanation is that a fishing boat damaged the cables by catching them in its net or that a ship accidentally cut them with its anchor – these are responsible for 65% and 18% of cable problems respectively. The first two cables were only 400 yards apart, suggesting that they were damaged in the same incident. “It might have been sharks with laser beams on their heads but I’m guessing it’s not,” says Beckert. Viewed this way, it’s two incidents in a week, which is higher than average but not unusual – last year their were 50 damaged cables in the Atlantic alone.

What about other conspiracy theories? Beckert doesn’t understand why the U.S. military would cut the cables, seeing as its service men in the Gulf use them to communicate with their families. And a lone saboteur is out of the question because the cables are “awfully deep for a wet suit.” And he’s ruling out Islamic extremists who want to disconnect the Middle East from the rest of the world. “All it’s done is demonstrate how tied to the rest of the world they are,” he says. That leaves an accident. Or those laser-equipped sharks.