Earthquake causes Gulf-wide slowdown

In addition to the tragic humanitarian effects caused by the earthquake in Algeria, the two main submarine cables providing Internet connectivity between the Gulf and Europe have been broken, causing massive bandwidth reduction across most of the region.

The earthquake, which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale, knocked out the SE-ME-WE3 and FLAG cables on May 22. The broken connection caused problems for ISPs and users across the Middle East, including Batelco, Etisalat, Omantel and Jordan Telecom (JT). “We didn’t suffer an immediate outage but we did suffer quite a substantial shortage which affected 85 per cent of our connections between here, Europe and the US,” said John Steel, COO (Operations) at Batelco.

Etisalat said it was the best prepared of all the ISPs for the outage, with additional STM-1 lines connecting to the Far East. “We have seven STM-1 lines and four were affected,” said Ansar Al-Kayani, Manager of Internet and e-solutions at Etisalat’s data centre in Dubai. “We overcame this because we have two additional STM-1 lines routed to Hong Kong for redundancy, which gave us five functioning STM-1 lines.”

Telcos such as JT made use of additional bandwidth from the Emirates Internet Exchange (EMIX) which re-routed additional bandwidth to their countries, according to Jawad Abbassi, President of ICT researchers Arab Advisors. Amman-based Abbassi said that JT had its service degraded by 70 per cent. “JT has a 155Mbps connection and when this went down it used the 45Mbps back-up from EMIX,” he said.

While Internet access was not lost across the region, severe bandwidth losses forced several ISPs to post notices on their Web sites explaining that ‘technological problems’ were to blame and that services would be resumed shortly.

Abbassi said that FLAG Telecom, which operates the FLAG cable system, was able to provide a bypass deal with Italian telco, Telecom Italia SpA, to re-route traffic through mainland Europe, but said that there are still bandwidth problems throughout parts of the region. He estimated current bandwidth levels at “60-70 per cent of pre-earthquake in countries including Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.”

Steel said that Batelco activated all the bandwidth it could from a back-up broadband satellite service. “We have top-up from our earth stations and we took their available bandwidth and we are still using this, which is 30Mbps,” said Steel.

Qtel released a statement that Internet and international telecommunications traffic had been “partially interrupted” and that it had switched to satellite services to provide Internet access. However the heavy Internet traffic in Qatar meant users would face “terminally slow speed”.

The earthquake will make satellite broadband access more attractive for some users, according to Abbassi. “Satellite companies will be happy because this is an exclusive sales pitch for them – ‘we aren’t affected by earthquakes!'” he said.

However Al-Kayani disagreed, saying that latency on the satellite networks does not provide a suitable substitute for cable-fed bandwidth. “The latency to New York is 200 milliseconds and to Los Angeles 250 milliseconds. We have it (satellite) as an alternative option, but as we had the extra STM-1 lines it was not required as the latency is intolerable,” he said.

Batelco’s staff worked almost 24-hour shifts to address the problem, added Steel, who praised the work of his team to address the problem. “Getting over this within 24 hours is nothing short of miraculous,” he said.

Abbassi said that the telcos acted promptly and swiftly, but that a liberalized telecommunications market would have meant more cables coming into the Middle East, which would have reduced the period of time in which business could be restored in the region.

“The monopolies all worked to restore the service as soon as possible but because there are fewer telcos there isn’t much room for new networks, which has caused this problem,” he said.

Steel added that it is rare that an occurrence like this should have knocked out both cables. “It’s one of these things sent to try us.”