ANALYSIS: Alternative routes through Middle East on pause

ANALYSIS: Alternative routes through Middle East on pause

Operators are hoping an alternative route through the Middle East for international voice and data traffic between Asia and Europe could be completed in the coming months, as terrestrial cables such as the Regional Cable Project (RCN) attempt to navigate through politically unstable countries.

The $500 million cable, which aims to stretch from the UAE’s Fujairah through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria before ending in Turkey, was originally due to be completed at the end of 2011, but its schedule has been pushed back due to ongoing revolts in Syria.

The project’s chairman and EVP of Etisalat’s carrier and wholesale services, Ali Amiri, has confirmed that the project’s physical infrastructure is virtually complete, except for “half a day’s work” in Syria. “We are at a stage where it could be completed within half a day. At any time we could make this breakthrough,” he said.

The RCN is backed by a consortium of seven operators, which include the Turkcell subsidiary Superonline, Etisalat (UAE), Mobily (Saudi Arabia), Jordan Telecom, Mada-Zain Consortium (Jordan) and Syria Telecommunications Establishment (Syria). Amiri states that the consortium is happy with the progress of the project, and “considering the situation it could have been a lot worse”.

RCN members can draw hope from the experiences of Greek operator OTEGLOBE, which was able to successfully resume work on the Silphium cable – a new subsea cable connecting its landing station in Crete to Libya.

The cable, which is part of an exclusive partnership with Libyan International Telecommunications Company (LITC), was initially announced on June 2010 but was put on hold due to the Libya Civil War.

The CEO of OTEGLOBE, Dino Andreou, recalls the moment he first learnt of the armed conflict in the north African state: “We signed the papers. We did the official ceremony in Libya. Six months later, the war started,” he said. “We thought the project was gone. We received a letter from LITC and stopped everything to wait for developments.”

At the start of the year, however, civil war slowly came to an end in Libya and the project was able to successfully resume: “As soon as things started to get clearer, the LITC CEO made it his first priority to get the cable up and running,” said Andreou.

In a remarkable turnaround, the cable is now expected to be operational by the last quarter of the year. OTEGLOBE and LITC are presently testing the 10G subsea cable system, which will offer capacities in excess of one terabit.

Andreou claims the route will offer the shortest distance between western Europe and north Africa. As part of the deal, OTEGLOBE will also provide LITC with connectivity to other major European hubs, and Andreou hopes the cable will help position the company’s Chania International Station in Crete as a new telecoms hub in the Mediterranean.

The cable has been fully funded by LITC. The Libyan company was unable to confirm before the time of going to press whether it plans to complement the subsea cable landing with a terrestrial route across Libya into neighbouring countries.

The tale highlights how highly telecoms is valued as a recovery tool for the nation. Andreou believes parallels can be drawn between his company’s experiences and the challenges presently facing the RCN.

Like the Silphium project, there is a critical need for the new route. Approximately 95% of international voice and data traffic between Europe and Asia is estimated to pass through the Mediterranean basin and on through Egypt’s ‘fibre-optic corridor’. The undue concentration of cables along the Red Sea has been a longstanding cause for concern for the industry, particularly in light of the Arab Spring. The completion of the RCN would open up a valuable alternative option for traffic.

“Where there is a need [in the Middle East], there is always a way out. Don’t forget this is a troubled region and it may always be that way, so you have to take that risk into account when you do business in that area,” said Andreou.