A dramatic increase in the amount of maritime traffic off the UAE’s shores is expected to lead to an equally sharp rise in internet blackouts, cable industry executives have warned.
The more ships and pleasure craft there are the more frequently submarine communications cables are inadvertantly cut, says Ahmed Mekky, chief executive of Gulf Bridg International.
Private yacht owners, fishermen and harbour pilots anchoring over cables are among the biggest culprits. Heavy maritime traffic in the shallow waters of Gulf ports increase the vulnerability of cables. The waters only reach a depth of about 65m to 70m.
“There are different reasons for the cable cuts,” said Mr Mekky, “the most common is ship anchors.” According to E-Marine, a subsidiary of Etisalat that repairs marine cables, more than 10 cuts over the past year were caused by pilots unknowingly anchoring over cables. As a result, internet connectivity is severed and users face slowdowns and lags as operators try to reroute internet traffic to other submarine cables.
The problem is likely to continue with heavy investment in the region’s marine sector. According to a report from US consultancy Booz & Company, demand for marina moorings in the region is expected to double by 2015 to 82,000 berths as the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Qatar spend billions of dollars to attain the title of “yacht capital” of the region.
One of the most severe disruption was the 2008 submarine cable damage that affected the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. There were two cuts between the Gulf and India, and one in the Mediterranean off Egypt.
In February this year, the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) between Port Sudan and Djibouti was cut by the anchor of a cargo ship that was being dragged more than 150km along the sea floor. The UAE operator du also was affected when an undersea cable between Dubai and Oman was cut in the same month.
“The cuts repeatedly crippled the entire region,” said Mr Mekky “It is an area that needs to be addressed and we are in committees with the [International Telecommunications Union] and working with different authorities to announce the routes of the cables.”
“We have systems that track ships in the Gulf and set off alarms and we can contact them if they come too close [to a cable],” added Mr Mekky.
According to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), “all navigational charts have submarine power/telephone cables marked on them including warning notices saying that anchoring or dredging is prohibited in the area”.
The IMO International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires ships to carry navigational charts and is currently phasing in a requirement to have electronic charts which are easier to update.
While pilots tend to have navigational charts with the routes of the cables mapped out, private owners do not and so are unaware of the location of these cables.
The main problem is that a single cut in one cable can affect an entire region. These marine cables have a global reach and link different continents to one another. A cut in one cable can affect several countries and operators, and depending on the size of the damage it can take a few days or months to repair.
“We cannot eliminate the cuts that could happen, but we can revise their impact by having more diversity,” said Mr Mekky.
Providing different routes for connectivity is a way of achieving this. But while a multiplicity of routes helps maintain internet connectivity, speeds and capacity are sometimes drastically reduced.
According to Mr Mekky, another major reason for the slowdown in internet connectivity is the region’s rapid growth for bandwidth demand.
“The region has seen major growth in capacity demand. It is roughly doubling every year,” he said.
Broadband subscriber growth is the primary driver of bandwidth demand in the Middle East and Africa, where the number of subscribers grew form 9.4 million to 19.4 million between 2007 and 2011.
In that period, the Middle East’s international bandwidth usage grew at a compounded rate of 98 per cent annually from 148 gigabytes per second to 2.3 terabytes per second, the highest growth rate in the world