Avoiding Egypt: Where Cables Fear to Dredge

Subsea cables are vital to the world's data connectivity but there are some routes the subsea operators would rather bypass

September 21, 2012

4 Min Read
Avoiding Egypt: Where Cables Fear to Dredge

Last week's shocking events in Libya have underscored just how volatile the Middle East/North Africa region can be.

It's a lesson the submarine network operators have already taken on board. Cable owners from various points on the globe are following an unwritten but widely agreed rule -- avoid Egypt.

A raft of cables just being built or planned are designed around the core idea of giving the Middle East hotspot a wide berth.

People give varying reasons -- commercial, physical, political. But the main reason is the unpredictable nature of the region.

The practice goes back a long way. Since the Empire telegraph was run out to Mumbai in 1870, cables have been laid through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. Now dozens of cables run along the bed of the Red Sea, yet despite the boom in Middle East telecoms, it's hard to find another subsea cable planned for that route.

One of the last to follow that route was the Gulf Bridge International cable, built between Qatar and Europe and launched earlier this year, which had to navigate its way through 194 cable crossings, the bulk of them off the Egypt coast. (See Gulf Subsea Network Boasts 100G and Xtera Lands Gulf Deal.)

But the Red Sea is not just a physical bottleneck. Arvind Datye, director of business development for Gulf Bridge, said Arab Spring unrest had caused delays during the construction period in 2010-2011. "We had our share of problems," he told attendees at the Submarine Networks World event in Singapore earlier this month.

Subsea cable executives also recall the series of unexplained breaks to subsea systems off the Egypt coast and in the Persian Gulf in 2008. (See Subsea Cable Cuts Hit Euro/Asia Route.)

"During the Mubarak years, no-one was concerned about the Suez Canal. Given the Arab Spring, I think that's changed,” said Ulises Pin, a partner at law firm Bingham McCutcheon. "I think it's mostly an issue in bottlenecks, in combination with the instability."

John Hibbard, who runs a Sydney-based industry consultancy, says commercial issues also are a factor. "By virtue of its location, Telecom Egypt has a good deal of leverage over cable-builders," he said. In recent years, operators have found reaching agreement with the Egyptian incumbent carrier "a significant challenge."

New cables are finding other ways to connect Europe and the Middle East. The Europe-Persia Express Gateway (EPEG), a terrestrial cable that routes from Frankfurt to Oman via Ukraine and Iran, is built "away from the known trouble areas," says Gavin Tait, director of Asia network planning for Cable & Wireless Worldwide plc (London: CW), now part of the Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD). "Obviously it doesn't go anywhere near the Red Sea," he adds. (See Euronews: Vodafone Gets the Nod on C&WW, Vodafone Appoints C&WW Execs and ancotel Provides EPEG Connection Point.)

Chris Wood, CEO of African carriers' carrier WIOCC, cites the proposed 34,000-km BRICS cable, which aims to connect all five major emerging markets (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the U.S., starting from the Russian east coast.

"That cable is not really about connecting those countries -- it's really about avoiding Egypt," Wood said. "[Egypt] has become an issue for the whole industry. A number of countries are deciding they want to avoid Egypt entirely. These are being built not because of demand on a specific route but specifically to avoid Egypt," he added.

But while Egypt may top the list of places to avoid, it's not the only one cable owners dread.

The new Asia Submarine-cable Express (ASE), which runs from Tokyo to Singapore, gives Taiwan a wide berth. Taiwan's earthquake-prone southern tip is home to half a dozen major transpacific cables that, when hit by a tremor in December 2006, all but broke the Asia/Pacific Internet. (See Asia Submarine-cable Express to Launch, NTT Plans $430M Subsea Cable, Earthquake Cuts Cables Near Taiwan and Quake Shakes IP Transit Market.)

Meanwhile, Singapore's popularity as a network destination is making it hard to land cables there, says Genaro Sanchez, Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT) vice-president of network planning and engineering. "The corridor in Singapore is narrow, it's getting crowded, [and] it's getting more difficult to work with cables."

Unless there's an absolute "need to drop capacity in Singapore," operators should seek to build around it, he suggests.

And for some, even the world's biggest telecom market is one to keep away from. The Russian-led Polarnet Project (website in Russian only), which plans to take advantage of the shrinking Arctic ice cap to build a system over the North Pole, boasts the lack of a connection to the U.S.

Deputy Director-General Ruslan Saushkin says the cable will connect London, Murmansk, Beijing and Tokyo, offering a "diverse route" to the U.S. without actually landing there -- a positive for Russian and Chinese customers.

For more on Polarnet's planned Russian Optical Trans-Arctic Cable System (ROTACS) and its rival Arctic Fibre, read this article.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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