Al-Ahram Weekly examines the ripple effects of the breakdown of Internet services in the region
Nature versus technology
Investigations increasingly suggest that it was an earthquake, and not human error or sabotage, that severed the Internet cables linking much of the Middle East and India to the rest of the world, reports Reem Leila
Millions of Internet users in the Middle East and Asia were unable to access the web after two underwater Internet cables were ruptured on 30 January. When a third undersea fibre optic cable, in the Persian Gulf, was severed last Friday, the breakdown in Internet connections from Europe to the Middle East and Asia was compounded. Egypt, India and the Gulf were all affected by the 30 January accident, which at 6am left more than eight million Internet users in Egypt without online access.
The disruption left 70 per cent of Egypt's network disabled. The circuit is expected to be restored completely by 12 February. A repair ship arrived at the site of the first two severed cables, 8.3 kilometres from Alexandria, on Tuesday. One of the cables, which are 5km apart, belongs to FLAG Telecom, the other to Southeast Asia, Middle East, Western Europe SEA-ME-WE-4, owned by a consortium of 16 telecommunication companies. The third undersea Internet cable, FALCON, which was cut 50 kilometres off Dubai, also belongs to FLAG Telecom.
The duo cables, each of which has a diameter of no more than 1.68cm, have caused problems across an area of thousands of square miles. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain all reported troubles. Cutting the FALCON cable further complicated the situation in Gulf countries, and in Israel which had already been affected by the damage in the first two cables, which together accounted for as much as three quarters of International telecommunications traffic between Europe and the Middle East.
The FLAG cable extends from the United Kingdom to Australia and Japan, passing Alexandria and Suez in Egypt and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The second cable follows the same course except that it starts from Palermo in Italy.
A committee headed by Minister of Communications and Information Technology (CIT) Tareq Kamel, and including Amr Badawi, head of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA), Akil Bashir and Mohamed El-Nawawi, respectively the chairman and vice-president of Telecom Egypt (TE), has been formed to identify the cause of the rupture. The committee's preliminary findings appeared to suggest the damage was caused by a ship's anchor though the theory was discounted after the Ministry of Transportation reported no ships had been in the immediate vicinity of the accident for 12 hours on either side of the rupture. The area is, in any case, clearly marked as prohibited on navigational maps.
More than 95 per cent of transoceanic telecoms and data traffic are carried by undersea cables, with the remaining traffic using satellites. Following the accident, France Telecom provided Egypt with extra capacity of five Gigabytes/sec, increasing "network capability from 55 per cent to 70 per cent of its capacity on Monday," says Badawi, who refused to speculate on any connection between the first two cut cables and the third beyond stating that there was no evidence suggesting the damage was deliberate.
Ahmed El-Atfi, founder of the Arabic Forum for an Excessive Speed Internet, said the outage should be an "alert" about the need to better protect essential infrastructure. "This shows how easily fundamental networks such as the Internet, mobile phones and electronic banking could be attacked," he said, adding that "when it comes to great technology it is not about building it, it is how to protect it."
El-Nawawi refuted any suggestions that the 30 January damage was the result of a deliberate attack. "The committee is increasingly of the opinion that the most probable cause was the recent earthquake off Cyprus."
The cables are soon expected to be restored to their full capacity, staving off any comparisons with the disruptions that took place in December 2006, when an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 Richter severed nine undersea cables between Taiwan and the Philippines, which disrupted traffic between Southeast Asia and the rest of the world and continued for months. Then, it took 49 days for 11 giant cable-laying ships to repair the damage.
"We cannot jump to conclusions before having proof so we cannot say categorically what caused the cuts till now. TE has sent engineers to accompany the repair team and until they report back we can add nothing. Instead we are concentrating on restoring Internet capacity," said Badawi.
Three licences have been issued to European companies to lay Internet cables by the middle of 2009. "The cables will be distributed along Egypt's north coast, one to be located by Al-Alamein, one by Port Said and the third by Arish," explained El-Nawawy. The cables, which will supplement existing networks, have an estimated cost of $125 million each.
Sherine Nasr finds there is a bright side to every crisis
As traditional fax machines were suddenly back in favour and business centres experienced a mini-boom, last week's partial disruption of Internet services in Egypt showed once again that one man's meat is another man's poison.
"I've not been so busy or sent so many faxes since I opened five years ago," said Fekry El-Sayed, owner of a business centre Downtown. He clearly had no objections to the breakdown lasting a little longer.
Other businesses, however, were completely paralysed by the network disruption. Foreign exchange bureaus have been particularly hard hit.
"Normally we receive lists of currency exchange rates sent by banks via e-mail at least six times a day. Data which used to take minutes to download now takes hours to retrieve," says Maysa Rawhi, an accountant at Al-Helal forex bureau.
Switching to fax machines when the problem first occurred turned Rawhi's working day into a nightmare.
"Each bank has a long list of forex bureaus to deal with. Sometimes I am number 50 on their list," she says. Her only option then is to ask clients to sit back and wait for the fresh exchange rates to come in. "The process may take up to an hour. Clients get upset but I have no other choice."
Exchanging currency without a signed receipt from the contracting bank can land bureaus in serious trouble and the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) conducts regular, unannounced inspections.
Exchange bureaus were not the only businesses affected. Companies offering online services to customers abroad found their activities also paralysed. Outsourcing services, which are growing rapidly in Egypt, topped the list.
"I missed delivering some software last week. My client was disappointed but understanding," says Samer El-Sahn of eSpace, an outsourcing company based in Alexandria. The company's core business is to deliver software development solutions to the US and the Gulf region, and the Internet blackout initially made that all but impossible.
"As a start-up business we cannot afford to lose clients for reasons outside our control. Although outsourcing is gaining ground in Egypt we still face tough competition from Ukraine and Eastern Europe."
El-Sahn reports the situation has improved since 70 per cent of network capacity was restored and eSpace has been able to deliver software to clients at a reasonable speed.
The Internet outage went almost unnoticed by banks and the Cairo and Alexandria Stock Exchange (CASE).
"We were not affected by the Internet breakdown. We are connected to the main server in Dubai," said an HSBC source who preferred to remain anonymous.
Most banks, connected through a viral private network service abroad, operated money transfer services as usual.
The National Société Générale Bank (NSGB), which runs the nationwide MoneyGram transfer service, saw no slowdown in its activities.
"NSGB branches worldwide are connected with MoneyGram in the US through an internal network so services were delivered at their usual pace," says NSGB official Laila Saad.
A statement released earlier this week by head of CASE Maged Shawqi stressed that trading sessions continued unbroken and no complaints had been received from brokerages.
"CASE has its own internal trading system and trading sessions went smoothly," he said.
Telecom Egypt (TE), the country's sole fixed line services provider, was less fortunate.
"For days now we have had record numbers of clients on our waiting service and this has placed tremendous pressure on employees," says TE's Riham Kamel.
In an attempt to contain the situation the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) has decided to compel Internet Service Providers (ISP) and Telecom Egypt to compensate their clients by providing a month of net service free of charge. Clients using the 0777 or 0707 dial up services will receive a 100 per cent discount on the cost of Internet calls in January. Broadband ADSL and leased line users will also receive a month's service free of charge.
Despite the negative impact on many businesses, the Internet community in Egypt, both service providers and receivers, has never been more united.
"I'd love to call it a super crisis management. We were not the only country in the region struggling for capacity," says Emad El-Azhari, managing director of TE Data, the only ISP that did not collapse when the Internet outage first occurred. TE Data and Link dot Net account for 80 per cent of the Egyptian market.
TE Data, which lost almost 45 per cent of its capacity on 30 January, switched all corporate customer traffic to a third, intact cable. Recognising that it was the only ISP running in Egypt TE Data then decided to distribute its remaining capacity among other ISPs.
"Jeopardising business in Egypt is something we cannot condone. Sharing capacity with competitors was the only solution and we are proud that we made that decision," comments El-Azhari.
Individuals appear to have responded positively to appeals to restrict personal Internet use. "Most have abstained from downloading stuff to keep remaining capacity open for much more important usage," says El-Azhari.
TE Data has invested heavily in automatic restoration systems in case of cable damage. "It is crucial for ISPs to have network planning and back-up systems in time of crisis. The chance of two undersea cables being damaged at the same time was tiny yet it happened. ISPs in Egypt need to do far more to secure capacity and maintain restoration systems."
THE NATIONWIDE Internet collapse created havoc for many individual users in Egypt as the country lost almost 70 per cent of its international online connectivity, writes Reem Leila. The Internet slowdowns, however, had little serious impact on the country's stock market and banks, with the bulk of the disruption felt by personal rather than institutional users.
Lawyer Noha Ahmed, who lives in Cairo, uses the Internet-based phone service Skype to keep in contact with her daughter who is studying in the United States. They have not been able to speak since the slowdown. "I kept trying for a long time but all I got was the message 'this page cannot be displayed'. Finally I turned off the computer and gave up though I hope to log on soon."
Internet access was severely compromised for three days over the weekend, during which many government offices and companies were closed, and has proven particularly frustrating for school students. Tamer Refaat, a 13- year-old pupil with a school project to finish, says he felt like "beating the computer and throwing it away".
"I must finish my school project and I have to access the Internet but I can't and it feels really bad. Time is running out and school starts on 9 February."
In vital sectors reduced Internet access had a minimal impact, thanks largely to the redirection of data routes to alternative cables and satellites. While most communication officials say there is enough spare capacity in the network the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology urged individuals to reduce their online time until the severed cables are fixed.
"Capacity is currently sufficient for business and government bodies. Individuals, though, should avoid downloading programmes," said Akil Bashir, chairman of Telecom Egypt (TE). An official at the Ministry of Health and Population spoke to the Weekly on the base of anonimity, said medical services had not been seriously affected. "The disruption did not affect the traffic in medical reports and test results between the ministry, the central laboratories and hospitals. They are usually sent by fax and sometimes delivered by hand when fax lines are overloaded. Our greatest problem was the lack of contact with the outside world but we can cope with that for a few days."
The shutdown highlighted the fragile nature of international communications. Despite the vast number of individuals who daily access the web, almost all Internet traffic is directed through a small number of cables submerged deep below the oceans and then dispatched through an Internet fibre vertebrae consisting of just 13 servers which handle and direct all online requests.
Hossam Adel, a Cairo-based web designer, says the inability to communicate with the outside world had caused confusion and concern among many IT professionals. "Since 30 January morning I have had no Internet at home. I made a round of other places during recent days but they either had no access or very low speed. All my work depends on a fast connection and so I have been unable to do anything." Initially, says Adel, the lack of accurate information about the outage left many people wondering if the Egyptian authorities, who have jailed online critics and threatened to close down websites they deem a threat, had blocked web access.
The outage has led to anger among many travel agents who had to turn away clients and tell them to return when the Internet connection was restored. "Those travelling for emergencies were taken to the airport accompanied by a travel agent to help them in getting manual tickets," said travel agency owner Momtaz Radwan.
Most of Egypt's newspapers suffered from the lack of Internet access. In some cases articles usually e-mailed to copy-editors had to be delivered by hand.
"I had to go all the way to Nasr City in the 2.30pm rush hour traffic to give my article to a copy-editor, then wait until he finished and then return Downtown," complained Dina Darwish. "If it continues like this next week it is going to be a horrible situation."