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28 February 2024

Internet access is looking up

Satellite internet access is not flawless while the high cost can make it prohibitive for some individual users. (SUPPLIED) 

By Ryan Harrison

A wave of déjà vu must have washed over Middle East telecoms operators when they tackled a second bout of internet outages caused by damaged undersea cables in 12 months.

A year ago, fibre-optic lines connecting the region to Europe were damaged, plunging internet services for companies and individuals into chaos.

Then, last month, the same cables were severed again, a problem that was resolved over two weeks with the restoration of full service by the first week of January.

Telecoms firms have been left with the pressing question of how to backup susceptible cables that carry business-critical bandwidth to scores of commercial users, as well as countless private browsers.

Satellite companies, it seems, have one answer.

Robert Bednarek, President and CEO of SES New Skies, a firm that leases satellite capacity around the world, said the latest cable problems should remind Middle East internet providers of the limitations of fibre-optics.

There needs to be a concerted effort to invest to allow satellite technology to kick in when internet lines go down, he said.

However, even satellite internet access is not flawless – it can be affected by many factors, not least bad weather.

Also the high cost, which varies widely between providers, can make satellite access prohibitive as a primary option.

But Bednarek said the key was for corporates to build a network unreliant on single fibres and single routes. "Satellites can be used to provide diverse routing in the case of a cable cut or to restore something. The problem with satellite capabilities in the Middle East is that it's very hard to come by while there has been rapid growth in satellite-based networking, especially in the banking, oil and gas, and construction sectors," said Bednarek.

"So when there's a cable cut you can't assume there's the capability. Telecoms providers therefore have to make an upfront commitment," he said.

Just before Christmas, three fibre-optic cables running along the Mediterranean seabed were damaged. Although no official cause was given, rumours surfaced of a possible undersea earthquake.

Later, etisalat issued a statement explaining that internet and telephone communications were affected between the Middle East, and Asia and Europe.

Almost immediately, satellite television company Orbit began broadcasting advertisements – with an illustration of a boat severing a cable – for its Satnet satellite internet service.

Bednarek said: "Many companies already build diverse satellite networks as a backup, so they're not 100 per cent dependent on fibre. Companies that are point-of-sale transaction providers can't afford to be offline for even a few minutes. For example, a bank that's feeding ATMs or petroleum companies servicing fuel outlets.

"Many customers are saying that 'my entire economic lifeline is dependent on a service that has failures', and are making alternative arrangements."

SES New Skies provides backup and restoration services both to the fibre operators and to private networks that do not want all of their traffic on one particular source.

In the hours after the cable slice in December, users reported that their internet slowed to a crawl, but most reported slow but reliable connections within 24 hours.

It was reported that in the UAE, access to popular video-sharing websites such as YouTube and some online gaming platforms such as Microsoft's Xbox Live was heavily restricted to free up bandwidth.

For businesses, internet outages disrupt vital communication with their customers. Internet access through satellite for individuals in the UAE continues to be costly, with services geared towards high net worth clients.

Etisalat's VSAT product offers subscribers exactly this, but at a charge of thousands of dirhams in installation and monthly fees.

Ali Amiri, Executive Vice-President for Carrier and Wholesale Services at etisalat, said the company had primary backup across its network in the form of submarine and terrestrial cables, and also an option of using satellite connectivity

"However, while satellite can provide resiliency for voice traffic in select instances, it is unrealistic for satellite capacity to replace large volumes of internet traffic," he said.

"We have already deployed the most robust network in the Middle East with access to the internet via Europe and Asia. These redundant links served us very well during the outage. Therefore, etisalat's expertise at its network operations centre made sure no additional capacity from our satellite network was required."

Large-scale internet disruptions are rare, but East Asia suffered two months of outages and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in December 2006.