x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Increase in maritime traffic raises risk of internet blackout in UAE

A dramatic increase in the amount of maritime traffic off the UAE's shores is expected to lead to an equally sharp rise in internet blackouts, cable industry executives have warned.

More than 10 cuts over the past year were caused by ship pilots unknowingly anchoring over cables. Ali Haider / EPA
More than 10 cuts over the past year were caused by ship pilots unknowingly anchoring over cables. Ali Haider / EPA

A dramatic increase in the amount of maritime traffic around the region is expected to lead to an equally sharp rise in internet blackouts, cable industry executives have warned.

The more ships and pleasure craft there are the more frequently submarine communications cables are inadvertently cut, says Ahmed Mekky, the chief executive of Gulf Bridge International.

Yacht owners, fishermen and harbour pilots anchoring over cables are among the biggest culprits. Heavy maritime traffic in the shallow waters of Arabian Gulf ports increases the vulnerability of cables. The waters only reach a depth of about 65 metres to 70m.

"There are different reasons for the cable cuts," said Mr Mekky. "The most common is ship anchors."

According to E-Marine, a subsidiary of Etisalat that repairs marine cables, more than 10 cuts over the past year were caused by pilots unknowingly anchoring over cables. As a result, internet connectivity is severed and users face slowdowns and lags as operators try to reroute internet traffic to other submarine cables.

The problem is likely to continue. According to a report from US consultancy Booz & Company, demand for marina moorings in the region is expected to double by 2015 to 82,000 berths as the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Qatar spend billions of dollars to attain the title of "yacht capital" of the region.

One of the most severe recent disruptions was the 2008 submarine cable damage that affected the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. There were two cuts between the Gulf and India and one in the Mediterranean off Egypt.

In February this year, the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System between Port Sudan and Djibouti was cut by the anchor of a cargo ship that was being dragged more than 150 kilometres along the sea floor. The UAE operator du was also affected when an undersea cable between Dubai and Oman was cut in the same month.

"The cuts repeatedly crippled the entire region," said Mr Mekky. "It is an area that needs to be addressed, and we are in committees with the [International Telecommunications Union] and working with different authorities to announce the routes of the cables."

"We have systems that track ships in the Gulf and set off alarms and we can contact them if they come too close [to a cable]," added Mr Mekky.

The main problem is that a single cut in one local cable can affect an entire region and, depending on the size and scope of the damage, a repair can take days, weeks or even months to complete.

thamid@thenational.ae