Slew of internet cable cuts in Egypt prompts search for alternatives

Above, a young Egyptian browses the internet. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

Above, a young Egyptian browses the internet. [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

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After multiple cuts to submarine internet cables that pass the Egyptian coast caused a slowdown in services in and around parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, attention is now turning to alternative solutions.

Cables including I-ME-WE, SEA-ME-WE-4, EIG and TE-North all broke down near Egypt within a few weeks of each other around the end of March, dropping speeds by as much as 60% and affecting many companies and individuals for whom the internet is their lifeblood.

The reasons for the breaks are disputed, possibly including an accidental cut by a ship anchor and an intentional cut by three scuba divers.

Specialists spoke with Al-Shorfa about contingency plans when cables are cut and how to better secure internet access.

"The majority of telecommunications companies that provide internet services develop emergency plans in the event submarine cables are cut," communications engineer Amer al-Minshawi told Al-Shorfa. "Such plans often involve securing 'transmission capacity', or switching internet transmission to alternate cables that pass through the same area where the disruption has occurred."

However, this solution costs telecommunications companies huge amounts of money, on top of what they pay to acquire internet access from companies that did not suffer disruptions, he said.

"Furthermore, those capacities get used up if the restoration process takes a long time," he added.

Internet consumption in Egypt "is growing steadily", he said, and submarine cables provide internet access not only to Egypt but other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

Companies could acquire internet access via satellite, as is the case in Iraq, Libya and within some international organisations operating in the Middle East, but this service is not available to Egyptian citizens, al-Minshawi said.

Wireless internet access could also be made available via aboveground optical cables and could be accessed by the consumer through a special receiver, similar to a satellite television dish, al-Minshawi said.

The advantage of this service is its high speed, low prices and ease of installation, he added.

Satellite internet access

Saad al-Qinawi, spokesman for Al-Haikal, an internet services company, said satellite internet services are currently limited to telecommunications companies licensed by the Egyptian government.

"Satellite [internet] service is licensed only to satellite television channels that require it for regular and live satellite transmission," he said. "Telecommunication companies also use it to provide service to remote areas where the cost of cable laying is prohibitively expensive and hard to carry out on the ground."

Were satellite internet access eventually licensed in Egypt, the two services -- access via submarine cables and via satellites -- would complement each other, he said.

Protecting cables

Mahmoud Shaheen, an engineer and communications professor at Helwan University's Faculty of Engineering, told Al-Shorfa there are three main reasons submarine internet cables become severed.

Natural changes that occur, like soil movement on the seabed and accompanying rockslides, could cause cuts, he said, as do accidents that happen when large ships and oil tankers run into submarine cables.

At other times, cables are deliberately cut, he added.

To help prevent cables from being damaged, their protective casing can be strengthened through "shielding", Shaheen said.

International standards require shielding with successive layers of Kevlar or polyethylene, Mylar foil, steel braids, waterproof aluminium sheathing, polycarbonate and fuel oil coated copper tubing, he said.