Friday, February 01, 2008

Internet: Outages in ME and South Asia

Internet speeds have slowed to a crawl in much of the Middle East and parts of South Asia after two underwater telecommunications cables were damaged Wednesday in the Mediterranean Sea. The problems are also affecting telephone service in some places, and many businesses are struggling to work around the outages. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

Damage done early Wednesday to two underwater telecommunications cables in the Mediterranean Sea has reduced Internet capacity in Egypt by 60 percent, and by about 50 percent in Saudi Arabia and India. Large sections of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia were entirely without Internet access on Wednesday, and authorities say it could take a week to fix the problem and get service back to normal.

In some places, international telephone service has also been affected.

Authorities are still not sure how the two undersea cables were damaged, but one theory is that they were hit by a ship's anchor.

The disruption to telecommunications has affected businesses throughout the Middle East and South Asia, including India's lucrative customer-service call-center industry. Slowdowns were reported on the Dubai stock exchange Wednesday, but backup measures kicked in Thursday to bring things mostly back to normal.

Local companies say although their productivity is being affected by slow Internet speeds, they are relieved that the total outage was limited to a single day.

The Bahna Engineering Company of Egypt does a lot of business with foreign companies and international joint ventures, and on Wednesday its staff found themselves scrambling to deal with orders and contract tenders via fax machines and telex.

"I think if it had gone any longer than it did, if they had not started fixing it by today, then it would have been a major problem," said George Bahna, one of the company's directors.

The telecommunications problems are affecting countries from Egypt to India and in between, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Analysts call the outage "a wake-up call" regarding the vulnerability of the communications technology infrastructure in the region. They say governments should take steps to protect it.

Some places, however, appear to have been better-prepared.

"I work out of Internet City where we have a good backup system whenever this situation does arise," said Rola Zaarour, a communications manager for the Intel Corporation based in Dubai. "And because I work for a technology company, we have our own systems that ensure that we are not affected by such outages, so I would say that our business has not been affected at all by this outage."

The lengths that some large multi-national companies go to in order to avoid being crippled by a major Internet outage illustrates the degree to which modern companies depend on their telecommunications systems.

Bahna says it is virtually impossible to do business these days without the Internet.

"It has really changed the way that the entire world works, I mean communications in general," said Bahna. "Look at mobile phones, for example. I remember before mobile phones, and everyone managed to get along just fine."

"But now if you take my mobile phone away from me for two days, I am totally lost. I don't know, I think culture has changed because of that - not only business culture but social culture, the way that people interact and the way that people run their lives has been affected greatly by the technology," he added.

Egyptian officials say the cables appear to have been cut north of the port city of Alexandria, but bad weather prevented boats and divers from being able to get to the area right away to assess the damage.

By Challiss McDonough, Cairo, 31 January 2008
Published with the permission of Voice of America