Last Wednesday was a day to remember at Watani International. Some time around 10:00 a.m., just as we were getting into the thick of the work, the Internet service failed. We restarted the computer, restarted the router; still no Internet. We tried calling our Internet service provider but found the line forever busy; we later learnt they had unplugged the line. By then we realised the problem was a more general one, much bigger than at the scale of Watani. We called our technical support manager who finally got to the bottom of the matter. There was Internet outage in all Egypt, he told us, due to damage in two undersea cables off Alexandria, and it would take no less than two weeks to repair. Well, at least we were not alone; we scrambled to keep up with the normal cycle of the work—but without the Internet.
Not ruled out
All through Wednesday, Thursday and part of Friday it was almost impossible in all Egypt to contact international sites. On Saturday the Internet service was restored to 55 per cent of its normal capacity, and on Monday it was up to 80 per cent. Everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief.
So what was the problem all about?
Last Sunday saw the fourth incident of undersea telecom cable damaged in less than a week, with Internet services seriously disrupted and some countries plunging into virtual Internet blackout. The first two undersea cables were cut the previous Wednesday near Alexandria, the third on Friday off the UAE coast and the fourth off Qatar. Internet outage affected Egypt, parts of the Middle East, and Asia. India especially was hard hit
The cause of damage is not yet known and, even though possible reasons such as ship anchors or power system disruption have been cited, the mere fact that four such incidents took place in less than a week has led several analysts not to rule out conspiracy theory.
Repair ships are now on site conducting the necessary repairs, and normal Internet service is expected to resume any time soon. The Communications Ministry has arranged for alternative routes for transmission so that, for now, 80 per cent of Egypt’s Internet capacity has been restored.
Ahmed Qassem, who owns a software company, said the Internet outage was a disaster. “This is not the first time a cable is damaged,” he said. “It happened before when Dubai was constructing an island, but this was a telephone line so the loss was limited. The repair took three weeks.” This Internet disruption makes users feel crippled. The crisis, he said, was badly managed; officials had to go seeking other alternatives after the damage was done instead of having arranged for back-up routes before disaster strikes. The government had an agreement with the Indian FLAG Telecom to exclusively supply Egypt with Internet services and the government, in order to monopolise the service in Egypt, refused to allow any other Egyptian company, such as Orascom Telecom to offer such services. “I believe, Mr Qassem said, the government should accept that other Internet providers would enter the Egyptian market.”
“All our dealings were halted and we were not able to communicate with clients or with our branches all over the world. The problem wasted a lot of time, and we had to resort to the use of telefax and mobile phones to conduct our business”, Ahmed Radwan, head of DHL, Cairo, said.
It was not immediately possible to gauge the impact of the disruption on financial institutions. The Egyptian stock market said the incident had no effect on trading. Last week some traders said transactions had indeed been slower and that several international trading orders failed to go through. Maged Shawqy, the head of the stock market, said that the stock market manages its work through an electronic system independent of the Internet. It was the brokerage firms, he said, that were affected since their work mainly goes through the Internet.
Work in banks connected to branches or head offices outside Egypt came to a standstill. For its part the central bank expressed its frustration with the service and said it would seek alternatives for the banking system if similar disruptions were to happen again.
Al-Sayed Ayoub, sales manager of EgyptAir, said some 60 per cent of bookings in Egypt and in the countries that faced the same crisis were affected, whereas EgyptAir offices in Europe worked normally because they were connected through different networks.
The good news that came out of the crisis is that Communications Minister Tareq Kamel has ordered the state-owned Telecom Egypt to compensate all users with a month’s subscription free of charge. He also said Egypt wants compensation from the undersea cable SEA-ME-WE-4 and FLAG operators. FLAG is Indian-owned by FLAG Telecom.