One way street

01 February 2009 |


A number of subsea cable breaks in 2008 highlighted the lack of route diversity in the Middle East. Guy Matthews asks how the problem is being addressed.

One major sag in global internet performance caused by severed Middle East cable systems looks like bad luck. A second lot of damage, in almost the same location, starts to look like sheer carelessness.

On 30 January 2008, the SeaMeWe4 system as well as a cable belonging to Flag (now rebranded Reliance Globalcom) incurred major damage near Alexandria from a still disputed source – but probably an errant ship dragging its anchor. The incident seriously impaired communications services as far away as India for days. Research firm Telegeography estimated that around 75% of capacity between India and the Middle East was temporarily lost. In December 2008, three cables were cut in more or less the same location, again leading to disruption across a wide area.

Following the second outage, the internet rumour mill spun the theory that hidden agencies with a political agenda might be to blame.

“It’s absurd to think of any kind of conspiracy,” retorts Alan Mauldin, research director with Telegeography. “Cables break all the time. People say to me: ‘Surely all this can’t just be a coincidence?’. The answer is yes it can. We’re not living in a James Bond movie.”

The timing of the latest break was a matter of bad luck, says Mauldin: “There are a lot of new cables being built in the Gulf region that are not set to go online until the second half of this year or next year,” he says. “These latest problems serve to show people outside the industry how important diversity is. Those on the inside already knew well.”

Much of the commentary that followed the second outage was poorly informed, agrees Mohsen Malaki, manager with Dubai-based analyst company Delta Partners: “If you analyse what happened in the latest cut off, it wasn’t as bad a similar incidents in the past,” he says. “The big regional telcos, like STC and Batelco, were all able to rely on routing traffic through Asia and on satellite capacity.”

Malaki says the region’s smaller alternative players, including mobile operators offering broadband services, are dependent on the capacity of major incumbents, so didn’t suffer too badly either. “If you’d been online in Dubai at the time, you’d have noticed a slowness because of the extra distance the traffic had to travel, but not a complete outage,” he says.

But what the region’s growing phalanx of competitive service providers are surely crying out for is not the ability to scrape by, but vastly increased cable diversity creating choices for all users of wholesale capacity.

This is on the way in the form of a number of new systems passing through the region from the East on the way to Europe, including IMeWe and EIG. More regional systems like TE North from Telecom Egypt and Orascom’s Mena cable will also reduce dependence on the older connections that have proved so vulnerable.

But not all agree that all these new builds necessarily solve the problem: “There won’t be much improvement in redundancy if the new cables coming online are all using a similar

route,” fears Andreas Hipp, CEO of Epsilon Telcommunications, a European telco which terminates a lot of traffic in the Gulf region. “What is needed is more terrestrial routes too, but that’s a long way off thanks to local politics.”

Andrew Grenville, executive vice president for international and wholesale business with UAE alternative operator Du, says that Du has been looking to address the diversity challenge with more routes looking to the East. “However this introduces latency into the systems,” he says. “To resolve this, a new route needs to be explored which bypasses the Red Sea and perhaps the Mediterranean as well. This could be through Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey, or Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey.”

Routing traffic eastwards, rather than through the bottleneck of the Suez Canal, has also traditionally involved limited choices, says Faizah Mohamed Amin, general manager for Telekom Malaysia Global’s Middle East and Africa region. “A few years ago, we identified the Middle East and Africa as a ‘green zone’ for growth, and we decided to establish a presence there,” she says. “We now provide Gigabit capacity for carriers in that region looking for upstream IP transit services, offering hubbing or offloading in Malaysia. We can give them an alternative hub in Asia, other than Hong Kong and Singapore. We say to carriers: ‘If you want redundancy, Malaysia is your best solution because of our geographical position and the sheer size of our country which enables us to offer features such as four international landing stations, fully connected and redundant’.” She accepts that the case for looking East may be harder for north African countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia: “There, the requirement for IP content is still in the beginning of its growth phase. In addition to that, their extremely close proximity to west Europe makes it more logical for them to continue with their current route for upstream content, for now.”

What is needed in the Middle East is a push for more variety in landings, and not just more cables, says Mauldin: “After all, do more cables necessarily guarantee less outage?,” he says. “An earthquake can damage a number of different routes at the same time.