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Speculation Swirls as Undersea Cable Repairs Begin

As repair work gets under way, rumors are flying thick and fast about the cause of a series of undersea cable cuts in the Middle East in recent days.

The latest is that a fifth undersea cable has been cut — or it could be a second cut to Flag Telecom’s FALCON (Flag Alcatel-Lucent Optical Network) cable near the Egyptian port of Alexandria, which was severed Jan. 23.

The damaged cables were FLAG (Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe) Europe-Asia, the Flag FALCON and SEA-ME-WE-4 (South East Asia-Middle East-West Europe 4), owned by a consortium of 16 international telecommunication companies. The fourth cable cut was the Qatar-United Arab Emirates cable.

Severed cables are nothing unusual, said Eric Schoonover, an analyst with TeleGeography Research. The leading causes of underwater cable breaks are commercial fishing equipment, ships’ anchors and geological activity, he said.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap?

Meanwhile, there is speculation that the cuts — some of which occurred nearly simultaneously — are the result of dirty tricks by America.

It could be the Defense Department, it could be the CIA, it could be a rogue commander going off on his own, if the theorists are to be believed.

A DoD information operations road map document in PDF form is being cited as proof, but that would require a very elastic imagination.

“The conspiracies are a big stretch here,” Eric Paulak, managing vice president with Gartner, told TechNewsWorld.

Besides, “the U.S. military uses those cables too,” TeleGeography’s Schoonover told TechNewsWorld.

Mending the Breaks

Repair work is already under way.

A ship from Flag Telecom, is reported to have reached the company’s FALCON cable, off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and another is being sent to the FLAG cable between Europe and Asia.

Egypt lost about 70 percent of its Internet capacity, and is expecting restoration of services after 10 days.

However, India’s US$11 billion-a-year outsourcing industry was not hit as hard as feared because it had backup plans involving alternative routes in place.

The president of the Internet Service Providers’ Association of India was quoted as saying that 70 to 80 percent of services are operating normally and the rest would up within a week.

Services in the United Arab Emirates were also largely back to normal because they were rerouted through a terrestrial cable across Saudi Arabia.

Iran — which some conspiracy theorists speculated was the target of the cable attacks — was not impacted much.

That is because it was not on the same segment as other countries that were hit.

“Undersea cable partnerships are political,” said Gartner’s Paulak. “Who has access where depends on the segmentation of the network. So, Iran and Israel were on different segments to those hit so they weren’t affected,” he added.

Why the Fuss?

So, why did everyone get all excited? Partly because the cuts all happened close together and partly because their causes are shrouded in mystery.

FLAG Europe-Asia and SEA-ME-WE-4 were cut Jan. 30 and FALCON on Feb. 1. The Qatar-UAE Cable was cut Feb. 3 or 4, depending on the time zone you’re in.

Another reason is that the Jan. 30 cuts “killed 75 percent of the capacity between the Middle East and Europe,” said Schoonover, who was on the phone with a reporter in Cairo at the time.

When two more cables were damaged shortly afterwards, the rumor mills went into overdrive.

However, the Qatar-UAE outage was probably due to a power loss, “which also happens,” Schoonover said.

Time for Action

The problem with the cables in the affected region is that the area is a bottleneck.

“If you know where these cables are and target any sort of communications infrastructure, you could cause a lot of damage,” Gartner’s Paulak noted.

Paulak has two recommendations: Put more undersea cables in place following alternative routes and invest more in alternative links such as land cables and satellite links.

Already, Flag has plans to build a new cable from Egypt to France, which will provide communications redundancy.

Will new cables along alternative routes be laid to serve communications between the Middle East and the rest of the world any time soon? Gartner Group’s Paulak does not think so.

“There was some negative impact on petroleum, shipping and banking firms, but they had connectivity of their own and through other global rather than regional providers, and the global providers had their own redundancy,” he said. “So there is no economic driver to push investment in more and better links.”

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