There is something fishy about the Egyptian cable-cut arrests

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When I read that three men in a dinghy had been arrested for planning to cut a submarine optical cable, I shook my head and went back to sleep. I mean, this sounded like the plot of a really bad television show, at best. I have covered optical networks (and the industry around it) for about a decade and a half, and I have never come across anything remotely similar to this claim.

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According to the claim, these guys were planning to take down the SEA-ME-WE-4 cable, which had accidentally been cut by a ship anchor about a week ago and caused wide-scale Internet slowdown in parts of the Middle East and South Asia, along with slowing down the traffic on SEACOM, the African cable that rings the continent. The SEA-ME-WE-4 cable, which is owned by a consortium of international carriers including Telecom Egypt, connects Marseille, France, to Tuas, Singapore, via the Middle East.

In its news release, Telegeography, a market-research company, notes:

If the Egyptian military’s claims are accurate, the cause of the most recent damage to SEA-ME-WE-4 would represent a highly unusual event. Deliberate damage to undersea cables is extremely rare—anchors, fishing, and geological events (such as earthquakes) are by far the most common causes of cable cuts. While there are more than 100 reported submarine cable faults each year, most damage goes unnoticed by end users, as carriers can usually route traffic around outages on other systems, both submarine and terrestrial.

The arrests are bringing up more questions than answers. For instance:

  • Is this a new kind of ransom scheme/spin on the piracy that plagues the waters off the African coasts, especially near Somalia?
  • Was this terrorism, and if yes, what does it mean for the world’s communication infrastructure?
  • Why didn’t they get a ship and drop an anchor, drag it across the cable and say, oops, we did it again.

There will be more to this story, and we will follow up accordingly.

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