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Undersea Cable Cuts, Internet Governance, and Lessons Learned

Baher Esmat

Early this month I attended the 3rd Internet Governance Forum in Hyderabad, India. The overall theme of the 4-day meeting was "Internet for All", with each day taking a sub-theme like "reaching the next billion" on Day 1; "promoting cyber-security and trust", on Day 2 "Managing critical Internet resources", on Day 3; and "Emerging issues - the Internet of tomorrow" and "Taking stock and the way forward" on Day 4.

The discussions in the first day around "reaching the next billion" had touched on areas pertaining to regulation and competition, and how national policies and regulatory frameworks could help alleviate barriers to entries and open the door for competition to provide the end user with more choice. To me as someone coming from Egypt, such discussions sounded very common not as a theory, but rather as an experience that my country has been going through for the past decade.

Last Friday, I spent a couple of hours in the morning on email before I got cutoff around 10am. I have 2 DSL lines at home through 2 different ISPs, I tried both lines but they were both down. I thought something wrong happened at the local exchange and decided to turn off my computer and enjoy my weekend. The last thing I could have thought about then was that what happened back in January 2008 was happening again in less than a year! Then in the afternoon I knew that I had gone offline in the morning due to cuts in 3 cables connecting Sicily to Tunisia and Egypt. The next day, 3 more cables were reported damaged to raise the number of damaged cables to 6! And of course it will take several days to get those cables fixed, and probably several weeks to find out the reason behind the damage. Only one of the 4 cable cuts that happened back in January was reported to be caused by a ship anchor, and nothing had been reported about the remaining 3!

Today, I've been thinking about all what everyone else has probably been thinking about. Is it a coincidence that such an incident happens twice in less than 11 months, and two of the cables that were cut in January are ripped again in December? What causes 6 cables to get ripped almost around the same time, even though some cables are 120km apart from each other? But anyways, these are the kind of questions that could hopefully be answered over the next few weeks.

More importantly, it occurred to me that the IGF talks about competition, and investing in national and regional IXP's are yet very relevant to my country. As far as I know, the vast majority of Egypt's Internet capacity is carried over FLAG and SEA-ME-WE 4 (both were cut twice this year), while a small portion is carried over one or two other cable systems, yet all the cables go from Alexandria through the Mediterranean to Europe. And although I've always been told that ISPs in my country got redundant capacities over alternate routes with FLAG, this didn't seem to be helpful with both incidents of cable cuts in January and December, which means that either the redundant capacity does not exist at all, or it represents a very small percentage of the overall capacity so when major failures occur, the redundant capacity is not able to absorb the traffic. I've also argued in a paper which I contributed to 3 years ago, that although FLAG had been able to provide ISPs with unprecedented prices for international bandwidth, introducing competition in this sector seemed to be necessary to further decrease the prices. At the same time, one could argue that Egypt has been pioneering in liberalizing Internet services on a national level (private ISPs have been operating in Egypt since 1996), but has been reluctant in taking a similar approach in relation to international cable systems and landing points. It was only in July 2006 when the telecom regulatory authority announced the liberalization of the international cables in Egypt, which resulted in 3 licenses granted to 3 different consortiums. These cable systems are still under construction.

The other thing that came to my mind while pondering this incident together with the Internet Governance debate, is the discussion about the critical Internet resources (CIR), and the fact that many people consider CIRs are equivalent to domain names and IP numbers, while others believe that CIRs should include a wide range of issues in addition to domain names and IP numbers. I tend to believe that things like bandwidth, physical infrastructure, and IXPs are very critical to the Internet operation and involving operation and policy issues that require coordination and cooperation among different parties.

The bottom line is that the Internet was severely disrupted in the whole Middle East region twice this year because of shortage in redundant paths and alternate routes of international capacities. I'm hopeful that policy makers and industry leaders in the region will take all necessary steps and actions to avoid such a major circumstance that occurred twice in less than 11 months, and can very likely occur again if they continue to only search for the reason behind the cable cuts, and miss the opportunity of making Internet services more reliable in their respective countries.

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There is competition, sort of .. Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Dec 23, 2008 8:09 AM PDT

Satellite for example, other undersea cables in the region ..

Competition in terms of more undersea cables?  Laying those is a very costly exercise, and the companies that used to lay these (such as tyco) went bankrupt - sold for pennies on the dollar.

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