Yesterday’s large-scale coordinated attack on underground internet cables in France which affected tens of thousands of people has been described as “unprecedented” by the head of the Fédération française des Télécoms.
Michel Combot called the damage an “almost professional act”.
“It was several coordinated attacks across the country within minutes of each other. Never before has an attack of this magnitude targeted underground internet infrastructure [in France],” he told Franceinfo.
The attacks on the fibre optic network hit residents in several towns and cities in the east and Ile-de-France. Cables were cut on the Paris-Lyon, Paris-Strasbourg and Paris-Lille networks overnight Tuesday and Wednesday.
Households in Besançon, Reims, Lyon, the Alsace area and in Ile-de-France were affected. The internet provider Free was hit the worst.
The head of alternative telecoms operator Netalis, which is designed for businesses, said that it could be considered to be an act of digital terrorism.
“This had a major impact because the coordination of the attacks on the cables was well done, by people who obviously know the network,” he said.
A preliminary investigation into the incident has been opened.
Political activism has not been ruled out, Franceinfo reports.
An anonymous source working in intelligence told the news media that pulling off an operation such as the one yesterday “requires good technical knowledge”.
“Not everyone knows where the hatches to long-distance internet cables are. This is a first clue,” the source said.
Mr Combot said that there has been an increase in acts of vandalism on internet infrastructure, although it is unusual to see a coordinated attack on underground cables.
Over the past two years, more than 200 relay antennas have been damaged, most often burned, by anti-5G activists. Malicious acts against fibre optic cables are much rarer.
“Perpetrators do not face sufficiently dissuasive sanctions,” Mr Combot said.
"The challenge is to be able to hunt down and convict the people who commit these acts," he added.
In March 2020, internet cables were intentionally cut in Vitry-sur-Seine and Ivry-sur-Seine (Val-de-Marne) in the Ile-de-France region, temporarily depriving tens of thousands of Orange subscribers of internet access.
Two months later, more than 100,000 Orange customers were left without internet or mobile data after cables were cut in several communes in Val-de-Marne and parts of southeast Paris.
These incidents were both suspected to be acts of vandalism, but according to the information provided by Orange at the time, they were the work of a single person, unlike Wednesday's attack, which was most probably the work of several vandals.
Separate theft incident
In a separate incident yesterday, gendarmes reported the theft of more than 900 metres of ADSL cables belonging to Orange, stolen in the village of Ormoy-Villers, in the southeast of the Oise department in Hauts-de-France.
No arrests have as yet been made but an investigation has been launched.
A member of the local gendarmerie said that this type of theft was becoming more common as thieves look to strip the cables for copper, which is getting more expensive due to shortages.
“It is often in rural areas not covered by video surveillance,” they told Le Parisien.
“Between the war in Ukraine, the surge in supermarket prices... It's in the air at the moment," they said.