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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

Yemen's new telecoms network promises to break Houthi internet siege

The southern port city of Aden awaits reliable internet and telecoms

A 4G mobile network, supported by the UAE will launch in Aden later this month. Ali Mahmoud / The National
A 4G mobile network, supported by the UAE will launch in Aden later this month. Ali Mahmoud / The National

Three years after Houthi rebels were driven from Aden, life has gradually returned to normal in much of the southern Yemeni port city. But while ships fill the docks and markets are stocked with goods, there is one area of life still controlled by the rebels.

The chronically slow internet and limited phone coverage are a result of Houthi control over Yemen's telecommunications infrastructure.

But Yemen's Minister for Telecommunications and Information Technology has a plan.

Last week, Lutfi Bashareef announced the launch of a network, Aden Net, which he hopes will end what he called a siege on telecoms in areas under government control.

The head of Aden’s Telecommunications authority, Abdulbaset Al Faqih, said the launch of Aden Net will allow the government to “pull the rug from under the Houthis' feet”, effectively transferring control of Yemen’s telecommunications and internet network from Sanaa to Aden, where the internationally recognised government of Abdrabu Mansur Hadi is based.

Aden authorities also hope the new network will deprive the Houthis of millions of dollars it accrues from taxation on telecoms operators under their control.

Mr Al Faqih said that the network, which is “fully backed by the UAE,” is a “crucial accomplishment, at a crucial time.”

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Aden Net will go beyond just a network company, he said. “It’s a complete infrastructure for new a telecommunication service, it will be a gate for international telecommunications into Yemen.

Slow internet has been more than a mere inconvenience to Aden’s social media addicts. Businesses say they lose significant amounts of money because of poor connectivity. And in a city whose economy is stuttering, they welcome the prospect of a return to high-speed internet. “It will benefit banks, companies and international aid organisations,” said Mr Al Faqih.

Before the war, Akram Hassan’s internet cafe had 150 customers per day, he said. Children played online video games, while worried mothers typed messages to sons who had moved overseas in search of opportunity.

When the Houthis took over Sanaa in 2015, the two main mobile networks Yemen Mobile and MTN were weaponised. Their coverage in parts of the country was cut and the companies shaken down for extra funds to pay to the Iranian-backed rebels. Available bandwidth dropped and much of southern Yemen was placed under a de facto internet siege.

Since then, Mr Hassan has struggle to attract half his previous custom. The prospect of a new network is “a spot of light which gives hope for a better future,” he said, “after years of suffering because of the war in which the Houthis kept torturing us in one of the most essential needs in our daily life, the internet and the telecommunications.”

Less than a quarter of Yemen’s population was online before the war, one of the lower internet penetration levels globally. But internet communications still fill an important niche, connecting Yemen with its diaspora community and partially making up for the absence of a functioning postal service.

The lack of reliable internet has been bad for hotel manager Mahmood Mohammed Qaid. Guest are often disappointed by the lack of connectivity at the Salah Al Deen hotel that he manages.

“It leaves them unsatisfied with the service we provide,” he said. "I’m waiting for the moment the new network gears up; it is going to be such a relief after years of suffering."