INTERNET FAILURE CAUSES SUDDEN DEATH TO IT-ENABLED ECONOMY

"Pakistan is the only exceptional country in the region which relies on only one cable."

By Ashraf Khan
July 04 - 10, 2005

Millions of Pakistan's internet connections crippled after a fault in a sole sub-sea cable, developed early last week which might last for another couple of days causing 'sudden death' to IT-enabled economy.

Almost all the connections sank when a power cable, which boost the fibre optic cable that connects Pakistan with the rest of the world, hit a fault in deep Arabian Sea some 35 kilometers southeast of Karachi coast.

"We inspected our onshore cable initially and finally located the fault about 35 kilometers in deep sea," Chief Engineer of Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL), Shahid Ahmed, said.

The cable connects Pakistan with South East Asia, Middle East and Western Europe and thus named as SEAMEWE. Singaporean telecom giant Singtel, which is part of 92 companies comprising consortium that owns it, operates the cable.

"We are holding multilateral conference to fix the problem and asked Singtel to arrange for the rectification of the fault," Ahmed said.

The cable offers major communication capacity to Pakistan as it caters to the 155*4 mega bits (MB) needs whereas the country gets 25 MB through satellite connections.

"We heavily rely on the cable as it offers 155*4 MB bandwidth whereas satellite provides mere 28 MB," General Secretary of Internet Service Provider (ISP) Association of Pakistan, V.A. Abdi, said.

The ISP association said that there were over two million direct international connections in the country whereas average users numbered over 10 million.

Meetings were going on to sort modalities to rectify the fault as it would require shut down, causing disruption in traffic to several countries linked with the cable.

"We are also engaged in finding lean time in India, UAE-Oman, and Djibouti, which are linked with the cable and would face disruption during repair," Ahmed said.

A UAE-based company was commissioned to repair the fault.

"Singtel has appointed E-Marine of UAE to fix the fault who have dispatched a ship which may take 18 to 24 hours to reach the destination of fault," Ahmed said.

However, the enraged industry was skeptical of any early repair.

The cable, the sole link connecting Pakistani telecommunication with the outer world implicated heavy losses to country's recent liberalized telecom sectors.

"It is a sudden death for our industry," Farrukh Aslam, President Association of Pakistani Call Centres, said.

"Our 50 percent clients from the US ran away in past two days and the rest were bent upon abandoning their operation here," he said angrily and added:" They (PTCL) are telling lie all the time about the repair time.

Call centres business has lately began here and the Pakistani entrepreneurs had attracted over a dozen clients form the US in past two years.

"They have ruined all our efforts as we were hoping to attract much more business and could be more competitive to neighbouring India who generates 14 billion dollars revenues from the call centres," Aslam said.

Airlines, banking and foreign trade suffered equally bad.

However, Pakistani telecom authorities were waiting for the ship from United Arab Emirates to fix the fault in the key submarine cable that severed the country from rest of the world.

"The ship will start sailing this (Wednesday) afternoon as it had to be equipped with cables, joints and other accessories and we have lined up urgent custom clearance here at our part," Senior Executive Vice President of Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL), Mashkoor Husain, said.

The complex repair work may require a complete shut down, potentially causing disruption in India, the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti and Oman, which are also linked to the damaged cable, officials said.

"Taking into account the normal sailing time (of the ship) and then locating the exact location of fault may take another three to five days at the worst," Husain said.

The cable is owned by a consortium of 92 companies with Singtel of Singapore acting as its operating agents. It sourced out the repair assignment to E-marine, a UAE-based company.

The PTCL official, however, said that they were making special backup arrangement to cater to the industry needs.

"We have made special arrangement for call centres, IT-enabled banking activities and ISPs by providing satellite backup," Husain said.

Nevertheless, the backup facilities were not sufficient.

"We are faced with a major blow as whatever backup they have provided is nothing for good as it has created severe congestion in the system adding more frustration to the users," Chief Executive Officer of NayaTel, a newly launched private telephone company, Wahai-us-Siraj, said.

"Pakistan is the only exceptional country in the region which relies on only one cable," Aslam said while lashing out at country's leadership raising doubt on their vision.

India has eight such cables to cater its telecommunication needs.

A ray of hope could be seen, however, as PTCL has lately joined a consortium of 19 companies, which have to operate another sub-sea cable. The 2.4 billion-dollar SEAMWE-4 would be ready by October 2005. PTCL is negotiating for joining an overland cable with neighbouring India. The cable is passing through Amritsar City of Indian Punjab.

While authorities were giving about five-day repair time they were not sure about the time-frame.

"Monsoon season is there, and the ship would take its sailing time and then it would launch a sub-sea search to locate the fault only then it would be able to rectify it," Husain said. (ashrafkhan1@gmail.com);