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By Malcolm Fried and Lars Klemming
Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Internet and telephone communications between the Middle East and Europe were disrupted after three undersea cables connecting Italy and Egypt in the Mediterranean Sea were damaged.
The failures cut the flow of “data of various kinds” between Europe and the Middle East, and there’s no timeframe for when communications will be restored, said Sanjeev Gaur, director of assurance at Reliance Globalcom Ltd. in India. France Telecom SA, which plans to send a maintenance boat to fix the problem, said the situation should be back to normal by Dec. 31.
Three cable systems carrying more than 75 percent of traffic between the Middle East, Europe and America were damaged, according to the U.K.’s Interoute Plc, which operates a fiber- optic data network connecting 92 cities. The cables run from Alexandria in northern Egypt to Sicily in southern Italy. In January, an anchor severed the cables outside Alexandria after bad weather conditions forced ships to moor off the coast.
“The information we have is a bit sketchy, but chances are that it will have been an anchor again,” Jonathan Wright, Interoute’s director of wholesale products, said in a telephone interview. “Close to 90 percent of all the data traffic between Europe and the Middle East is carried on these three cable systems.”
Interoute said the January incident brought down 70 percent of the Internet network in India and the Middle East.
Customer services and some mobile-phone customers at Vodafone Group Plc’s Egyptian unit are affected by the cable failure, said Simon Gordon, a spokesman for the U.K. company. Egypt is the only country where the company is aware of any problems linked to the failure, he said. Most mobile-phone calls are routed through fixed-line cables at some point.
Verizon Communications Inc., the second-largest U.S. phone company, said it has rerouted traffic for its Verizon Business customers making calls to the Middle East by siphoning it to Europe and the U.S. and then down through Asia, spokeswoman Linda Laughlin said in an interview.
The rerouting slowed some traffic to about half its normal speed, Laughlin said. Point-to-point customers still don’t have connections, and Verizon doesn’t have information on how many subscribers are affected. The company expects repairs to be completed by early next week, she said.
Portugal Telecom SGPS SA, Portugal’s biggest phone company, has redirected traffic through other cables in the region and therefore the “impact is very small,” said a company official. Sonaecom SGPS SA, Portugal’s second-biggest fixed-line phone company, also said that it’s diverting traffic to other routes.
France Telecom’s Orange mobile-phone unit said the cable failure “greatly disturbed” the traffic between Europe and parts of Asia. At one point as much as 55 percent of voice traffic in Saudi Arabia, 52 percent in Egypt and 82 percent in India was out of service, according to Orange.
Internet traffic “from Mumbai to London has now been rerouted via Hong Kong which may lead to congestion and increased latency on this route,” Reliance said in an e-mailed “traffic disruption update,” adding that it is working with the affected customers to restore all services. The company said it will publish another update on its Web site tomorrow.
“You can reroute the data through other cables, but that increases traffic and can potentially create bottlenecks,” Interoute’s Wright said. “So Internet connections may slow down and some phone calls could get disrupted.”
Weather, Sea Conditions
Some of Interoute’s clients in the U.K. and Southern France are probably affected by the failure, Wright said.
“It’s difficult to forecast how long it will take to fix the problem as it depends on the weather and sea conditions in the Mediterranean,” Wright said.
A fault is affecting the SMW4 cable near the Alexandria cable station, the FLAG FEA cable is down and the SMW3 cable system is also affected, according to information received from Telstra. Flag Telecom Group Ltd., a Reliance Globalcom unit, operates FLAG FEA and the other cables are owned by groups of phone companies across the regions.
Reliance Globalcom doesn’t know exactly what happened and engineers are working on the problem, said Anurag Joshi, head of the company’s global network operations center.
The SMW4 cable, also known as SEA-ME-WE 4or South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4 cable network, connects 12 countries: Pakistan, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Italy and France.
France Telecom said one of its maintenance boats in the Mediterranean area is headed to the region for a relief mission with 20 kilometers of spare cable on board.
Priority will be to recover the SEA-ME-WE 4 cable, then the SEA-ME-WE 3 cable, France Telecom said, adding that Sea Me We4 could be operating by Dec. 25 and the situation should be back to normal by Dec. 31.
To contact the reporter on this story: Malcolm Fried in London at email@example.com; Lars Klemming in Stockholm at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Updated: December 19, 2008 18:39 EST