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Preventing The Middle East’s Next Web Outage

Preventing The Middle East’s Next Web Outage

Experts are working around the clock to prevent another cable cut disaster.

The internet is becoming an increasingly important part of our lives with many now unable to live without it to fulfill both their business and leisure needs.

But imagine waking up one day to find that your internet connection has stopped working or become unbearably slow, limiting or disabling your ability to send and receive emails, surf the web, and use services like cloud storage, Whatsapp, Facebook, YouTube and Google.

Next, imagine the cause of this problem is not your local router, fibre connection or even located in the same country but instead due to a cable breaking thousands of miles away.

This is the reality of the internet today as its backbone consists of a web of submarine cables spanning across the seas and oceans of the world.

Few are aware this infrastructure even exists, at least that is, until there is a problem with their connection.

This was the case in early 2008 where simultaneous cable cuts on systems including the FLAG and SeaMeWe-4 cables affected millions of users across the Middle East and Asia.

At least 60 million users in India, 12 million in Pakistan, six million in Egypt, 4.7 million in Saudi Arabia and 1.7 million in the UAE were affected by the disruption, according to du executive, Mahesh Jaishankar, speaking at the time.

Since then telecoms operators from across the Middle East and the wider world have sought to reduce the vulnerability of their infrastructure.

“There are more than double the amount of submarine cables in service than in 2008, which does add a degree of resiliency. Of course it’s still possible to have multiple cables damaged simultaneously,” says Alan Mauldin, research director at TeleGeography.

Point of failure

Part of the reason for the vulnerability of internet connectivity in the region lies in the route the bulk of submarine cables take between Europe and Asia.

This involves travelling across the Mediterranean to landing stations at Abu Talat and Alexandria in Egypt, overland to Suez or Zafarana on the southern side of the country and then submerging again to continue their journey through the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea.

Naturally such a high concentration of cables travelling through one country has been a cause of concern in the telecoms industry for some time, but even more so recently given the instability in Egypt.

“Egypt now represents a global internet disaster waiting to happen,” notes Jim Cowie, CTO of Internet research company Renesys in his blog.

To date the bulk of cable cuts have been attributed to accidents – a ship moving through the wrong area or dragging its anchor – but the spectre of deliberate sabotage has emerged, with the most recent case reportedly taking place this year.

At the end of March 2013 news spread around the world that three divers had been arrested off the coast of Alexandria for cutting the SeaMeWe-4 cable linking a host of countries between Singapore and France.

The men were photographed on a boat in handcuffs by Egypt’s military but no motive was given for their alleged attack.

According to Renesys, the cut “profoundly degraded connectivity” across the Middle East, Asia and Africa,partly because it followed a break on the Europe India Gateway (EIG) cable the same week.

The repair time for submarine cable cuts like these can be long, often ranging from 14 days to a month, which means waiting weeks for services to be restored to normal in the wake of such an incident.

As a result a coordinated attack or large-scale accident in or around Egypt, cutting off multiple systems, could prove devastating.

“Should both the northern and southern terrestrial legs of cables like SeaMeWe-3, SeaMeWe-4, and IMEWE go out at once, the world could lose most of the internet connectivity between Europe and Asia in a heartbeat,” says Cowie.

The overland Option

While alternative submarine routes travelling around the coast of Africa have emerged, the difference in latency is significant. Similarly to the way in which a ship travelling from Europe to the Middle East or Asia will reach its destination much faster by taking the Suez Canal.

As a result the other alternatives that Middle Eastern telcos have been eyeing are terrestrial routes, avoiding Egypt by travelling overland to Europe across multiple borders.

These systems are easier and faster to repair and can be accessed more quickly, without requiring a repair ship from a distant port to get permission to carry out the operation, argues Jaishankar, now vice president of Datamena and broadcast at du.

One such project is the recently announced Middle-East-Europe Terrestrial System (MEETS), led by a consortium of providers including Vodafone, Kuwait’s Zain and Zajil, and du.

The first phase of MEETS will be built in Q1 2014 as part of a 1,400km power grid installed by the GCC Interconnection Authority, running from Kuwait to the UAE’s Fujairah via Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar at a cost of $36 million. The next phase is set to see it connected to Europe via Iraq and Turkey.

Jaishankar admits the consortium is in negotiations and “exploring all options” for this next step, although instability in the region means there are surprisingly few.

Two similar projects, the Regional Cable Network (RCN) extending from the UAE to Turkey, and the Jeddah-Amman- Damascus-Istanbul (JADI) Link, between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have reportedly been put on hold because their planned routes go through war-torn Syria.

“We are hoping it will be far smoother than some of the other projects that found themselves in the middle of conflict,” says Jaishankar.

This leaves Iran – a country that indicated in the last year it was pursuing its own national internet – with one of the only active terrestrial routes.

The Europe Persia Express Gateway (EPEG) stretches from Oman to Frankfurt travelling through Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia.

“EPEG is now the internet’s fastest path between the Gulf and Europe, shaving at least 10 per cent off the best submarine cable round trip time from Dubai to Frankfurt,” claims Cowie.

But it, along with the terrestrial GBI- North route via Iraq announced last year, accounts for a “very small share of total capacity between Europe and the Middle East right now,” according to TeleGeography’s Mauldin.

Maishankar says that du has also been considering the EPEG route to increase its resiliency, describing it as a “very good option”. But he says the carrier wants to understand its reliability better before making any commitment.

Yet while the company mulls these resiliency steps he is also keen to point out one of the fundamental reasons that the Middle East is particularly vulnerable to cable cuts, and one of the primary reasons for MEETS’ construction.

According to Jaishankar, an estimated 96 to 97 per cent of connectivity in the Middle East is international and only three to four percent is between countries in the region.

This is because the bulk of content people want to access, including Arabic content, resides in Europe and the US.

“If you were to bring that content home we won’t need so many cables, we won’t need so many investments. And by connecting all the countries together you start being able to create that market here,” he says.

For the Middle East it seems the issue may not just be limiting the impact of simultaneous cable cuts, but also reducing dependence on content from other regions to become more self-sufficient.

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