Development & Education

Copper scavenger cuts Armenia's Internet

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(Photo: Olga Díez/Flickr)

By Shant Shahrigian

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When people lose their Internet service, there's usually a technical problem, like network maintenance or a defective modem at home. A widespread Internet blackout last week in the former Soviet republic of Armenia had a different reason. It seems a 75-year-old woman digging for scrap copper in a Georgian village hit on something arguably more precious: one of two cables that bring the Internet from Georgia to Armenia.

Lilit Melikyan was working at Yerevan's Institute for Linguistics when the Internet went down.

"I was sitting in my chair and translating some article from Armenian into English," said Melikyan. "I needed an electronic dictionary," and suddenly, there was no Internet.

Authorities in Georgia reportedly tracked the suspect down with help from local witnesses, and later released her due to her advanced age. But she could face up to three years in prison on charges of damaging property. Armenian media are calling the woman the "spade hacker."

Melikyan said she still can't believe that service was down because of one woman hunting for copper. "But if that's really what happened," Melikyan said, "I think she shouldn't be condemned for that. She's an old lady."

Digging up old copper cable to sell as scrap is a common way for people in former Soviet republics to earn some money. But the incident has thrown a spotlight on the state of telecommunications in Armenia, and the Caucasus region. Vahan Hovsepyan, with Armenia's Union of Technology Enterprises, said he's worried about Armenia's near total dependence on Georgia for the Internet.

"The situation with Georgia is really serious," Hovsepyan said. "When it crashes, almost everyone feels it."

It's still not clear how many were affected in last week's outage. News agencies reported almost everyone in Armenia lost Internet for up to 12 hours. But Armenia's three Internet providers maintain only half of their customers went web-less, for a few hours. Parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan also lost service.

And it's not that uncommon.

Hayk Faramayzyan, general director of the Armenian Internet provider GNC Alpha, estimates that Armenia suffers an Internet blackout about once every three months.

"This usually happens," Faramayzyan said. "It happens in Armenia and also in Georgia. This time it was a funny story with an old woman."

Faramayzyan said the Georgia-Armenia Internet link stretches some 435 miles, and it's vulnerable, especially during periods of construction.

"Sometimes they steal, sometimes they deliberately destroy," Faramayzyan said. "Things happen."

The latest incident isn't expected to bring changes in the way Armenia gets its Internet. Hovsepyan of the Armenian tech union said for now, underground cables remain the best way for his country to access the web.