Internet failure hits business from Cairo to Colombo

Damage to undersea internet cables hit businesses across the Middle East and South Asia on Thursday, including the vital call-centre industry, prompting calls for people to limit their surfing.

About 70% of internet users in Egypt have been affected since two submarine cables in the Mediterranean Sea were damaged on Wednesday, also rupturing connections thousands of kilometres away.

The cause of the damage is not yet known.

State-owned Saudi Telecom reported the loss of more than 50% of its international lines, and said it did not know when normal service would be restored, the Arab News reported.

Egypt’s Telecommunications Ministry said repairs would take “at least a week” and appealed for users not to overload the back-up system with hefty downloads and file-sharing applications.

“Two of our cables are affected; everyone will go onto a third cable,” ministry spokesperson Mohammed Taymur said. “But that will not be enough bandwidth. The cable will be overloaded and no one will be able to get access.”

“People should know how to use the internet because people who download music and films are going to affect businesses who have more important things to do.”

Taymur said a company had been asked to repair the cables but that “for the time being we don’t know the cause. The two cables are a kilometre apart and we don’t know what could have affected both at the same time.”

Like India, Egypt has a major call-centre industry that has been affected by the failure, with a Telecommunications Ministry statement saying productivity was down to 30%.

The statement named other affected Arab countries as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Qatar and Bahrain.

Egyptian blogger the Arabist said he would “resume posting after the problem is resolved” and predicted, with a hint of sarcasm, “complete social breakdown in vast swathes of [upmarket Cairo districts] Heliopolis and Mohandiseen as thousands are unable to update their Facebook status”.

Bahrain’s Batelco issued a statement appealing for people to limit use to browsing and email but to refrain from file-sharing applications which require more bandwidth.

Gas-rich Qatar said that less than 40% of its internet services were affected but that international phone lines were functioning normally.

The al-Raya daily quoted one of national operator QTel’s directors as saying that repairs in the Mediterranean could take up to two weeks.

In Muscat, OmanTel issued a statement saying it had re-established 76% of internet services by Thursday.

In Kuwait, the government said “weather conditions and maritime traffic” had damaged two cables, affecting most of the region.

India’s internet-dependent outsourcing industry was also severely disrupted, with businesses saying it may take up to 15 days to return to normal.

“Information-technology companies, software companies and call centres that provide online services to the UK or the US East Coast are the worst affected,” said Rajesh Chharia, president of the Internet Service Providers’ Association of India.

India’s $11-billion outsourcing industry employs 700 000 people working for companies that deliver services ranging from answering customer queries to analysing equity markets for global clients.

The industry serves clients mainly in the US and Europe that sought to cut costs by farming out work to the country.

Neighbouring Bangladesh was also hit, with an official from the state Telegraph and Telephone Board saying that “voice and data traffic bound for Europe and America is not working. It slowed down the internet services in the country.”

Another Bangladesh provider, BDCom, said it was running at a quarter of its usual capacity.

“Our operations have slowed down. All the ISPs and call centres have also experienced similar problems,” said Sabbir Ahmed Suman, BDCom director and a senior member of the Bangladesh Internet Service Providers Association.

Sri Lanka also faced a drastic drop in service quality, according to Sri Lanka Telecom, the country’s largest internet service provider. — AFP

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Charles Onians
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