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It is like Groundhog Day! Once again an undersea cable has been cut — the South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4 (aka SEA-ME-WE 4) cable and that is causing an internet (and communications) slowdown in and around Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. The cut was said to be near Alexandria in Egypt. Tata Communications — previously Videsh Sanchar Nigam LimitedIndia — administers the network.
While the cut was on a single cable, it came at an unfortunate time as a few other major cables were in “maintenance mode” and that has resulted in problems for service providers across the region. Our sources in the telecom community confirmed that two other cables — Europe India Gateway (EIG) and India-Middle East-Western Europe (IMEWE) — were in ‘maintenance’ mode when the SWM4 got cut. The result is downstream congestion on networks that are going to India and around the Indian Ocean. UAE’s Etisalat reported that the internet speeds were down by as much as 60 percent in some locations.
Sunil Tagare, who runs the BuySellBandwidth.com, on his blog wrote
It’s not good enough to say since you have 10 cables even if going through Egypt, you have route diversity. And as today’s 4 cable cuts have demonstrated, any time the cables are along similar paths, there is a high likelihood that all of them might be cut at the same time.
He was arguing that four major cable — I-Me-We, Sea-Me-We-4, EIG and TE North – were impacted at the same time and thus causing problems in the Middle East and Asia. It is not a smart way to think about the networks, especially since we depend so heavily on many of these optical cables. Tagare’s argument makes sense to me, for we have seen this pattern repeat itself a few times. As I wrote earlier, there are three major cables that connect Europe and Middle East — SeaMeWe-3, SeaMeWe-4 and FLAG Euro-Asia — and they follow the same path underneath the Mediterranean Sea, making them vulnerable to cuts.
In 2010, the SEA-ME-WE-4 experienced a cut causing large scale disruptions, two years after the cable experienced an outage. Things have become more acute now considering that SEA-ME-WE4 is a lifeline for the African internet.
SEACOM, an African consortium which owns the big African Internet cable, later confirmed the outage on its website and said that it was working towards restoration. SEACOM had already been experiencing problems since March 24 and was in the middle of fixing those before it was hit by the cable cut.
Mark Simpson, CEO of SEACOM, said in a press note:
The cause of the outage is a physical cable cut some kilometres north of the coast of Egypt in the Mediterranean Sea. This is not likely to be known until the cable is repaired in the coming week or two and the damaged section is recovered from the seabed and inspected. However we suspect, based on our experience with sub-sea systems and the nature of the sea area where the cut has occurred, that the most likely cause is external aggression to the cable most probably caused by a larger vessel dragging its anchor across the sea bed. Unfortunately this remains a common cause of damage to cable systems globally, despite our continued efforts to protect the cable with armour, burying, notifications to ships of cable location and exclusion zones.
By the way, SEAMEWE-3 experienced a cut about two months ago (between Singapore and Perth, Australia) and it hasn’t been fixed just yet mostly because the network operator was waiting for Indonesian government permission to fix the cable which is in Indonesian waters.