Led by Senior Policy Fellow Abu Saeed Khan we’ve been saying that Asia needs a terrestrial cable system to back up the submarine cables. By the time international government organizations get organized, the private workarounds will be fully operational.
Like traders plying the ancient Silk Road, telecommunications operators routing bits and bytes from Asia to Europe and back have to pass through the Middle East, whose tricky geography and even more challenging geopolitics have sometimes made the region just as much of a bottleneck in the digital realm as in the physical world. When things go wrong, the consequences can be serious and far-reaching.
In January 2008, for example, several underwater cables off the Mediterranean coast of Egypt were inexplicably severed. Only days later, a separate cable was cut in the Gulf, near Dubai; this time, a ship’s anchor was blamed. Telecommunications activity throughout the Middle East was severely disrupted, and there were ripple effects for carriers across the world. A similar, though less serious, incident occurred in February of this year in the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, traffic is surging, both internationally and within the region, fueled by the spread of mobile phones and a belated but enthusiastic adoption of the Internet.
Demand for international bandwidth has grown at a compound annual rate of nearly 100 percent across the region over the past five years, according to TeleGeography, a research firm. That is the fastest growth of any region in the world, and roughly double the rate of increase in North America.
Until recently, options for passing through the Middle East were limited, and links within the region were often spotty. Most East-West traffic had to go via Egypt and the Red Sea; the vulnerability of that route was exposed by the 2008 incident. Telecommunications operators in the Gulf also want more competition, in order to bring down tolls.