Damaged cables disrupt internet in Middle East

The cables account for 75% of the network capacity between Europe and the Middle East, says analyst

Two underwater cables in the Mediterranean Sea were damaged on Wednesday morning, dragging internet connections throughout the Middle East and in parts of Asia to a crawl.

The cables, one operated by Flag Telecom and the other by a consortium of 15 telecommunications operators, account for 75% of the network capacity between Europe and the Middle East, according to Stephan Beckert, an analyst with TeleGeography Research.

A third cable was undamaged, but it is older and has far less capacity than the others, he said.

Operators believe the damage was caused by ship anchors during a heavy storm at sea, Beckert said. Wire services reported that ships heading for Egypt's northern coast were diverted due to the storms, and their anchors may have severed the cables several miles from shore.

AT&T confirmed that its service to some areas of the Middle East was affected, but said it was now re-routing traffic. Etisalat, the telecommunications provider in the United Arab Emirates, reported that both internet traffic and international voice calls were affected by the incident. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India and all of the Gulf states were affected, Beckert said.

As much as 70% of Egypt’s internet network was down, and over half of India's bandwidth was cut due to the disruption, according to a report from Reuters that cited local officials.

Most of the major operators have backup plans in place for this type of incident, Beckert said. In this case, they'll have to route traffic from the Middle East to Asia, across the Pacific Ocean, through the US and then across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, he said. That will result in latency problems that will likely lead to sluggish connections until the cables are repaired, he said. The operators in the Middle East told him that they should be able to repair the damages in one to two weeks.

The accident should affect mainly internet traffic. Voice calls travel over the same cables, but operators will give priority to the voice calls, which take up relatively little capacity but produce more revenue than data traffic. Beckert estimates that 1% or less of traffic carried on the cables is voice.

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