Houthis expose vulnerability of int'l Internet connections

Houthi rebels credit: Reuters Khaled Abdullah
Houthi rebels credit: Reuters Khaled Abdullah

Following the Houthi attacks on submarine cables in the Red Sea, "Globes" investigates the implications for Israeli and international communications.

"Globes" report on Monday about the damage caused to submarine communications cables in the Red Sea by the Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists has caused a stormy and mixed response worldwide. This was the first time ever that deliberate damage by a terrorist organization has been reported against international communications cables, which are responsible for major internet traffic between continents, in this case between Europe, Africa and Asia.

The damage was to four submarine communications cables - AAE-1, Seacom, EIG and TGN - out of the 17 that pass beneath the narrow waters separating Saudi Arabia and Djibouti in East Africa. The damage highlights the ability of a terrorist organization to disrupt international communications, after having already disrupted international merchant shipping.

The Houthis have not taken official responsibility for the damage to the cables and the Yemeni government has even issued a denial but the main damage has been sustained by the west and its allies - to telecom companies in the UAE and India, as well as Egypt. About 60% of the world's Internet traffic passes through underwater cables laid in Egypt, from the Mediterranean along the bed of the Suez Canal, and onto the Red Sea near the town of Ras Zafarana.

Seacom, one of the submarine cable companies hit,, even issued a statement confirming that its cable was damaged, adding that this had also happened to "additional cables." The revelations about the damage by "Globes" was also covered by prominent media outlets including "Bloomberg" and "The New York Post. However, the companies involved, as well as the US government, tried to ignore the story as much as possible and lower the tensions, so as not to endanger the ships due to arrive in the area to repair the submarine cables.

Insurance payments could reach $150,000 per day

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has already taken advantage of the exceptional event to score points. A top advisor at the Saudi Ministry of Communications, Rian Al-Sa'adi wrote on social media, "Continued deployment of the submarine cables in the existing situation leads to points of communication failure all over the world. We must act to establish a more durable network through the creation of additional digital centers of gravity."

Al-Sa'adi is essentially saying that Saudi Arabia wants to establish a land bridge of communications cables that would bypass the Red Sea and would also link up the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar before continuing to India and East Asia.

US consultancy firm OpenCables CEO Sunil Tagare is one of the founders of the international submarine communications cable FLAG, which was laid at a cost of $1.6 billion between Europe and Japan over 17,000 kilometers via the Middle East and Asia. He tells "Globes" that he hopes the Yemeni government will allow the vessels to reach the region to assist in repairing the damage.

For insurance companies, Yemeni denials are of no interest. They have signed agreements with communication cable companies, and the daily insurance costs of a repair ship could reach $150,000. Repairs that may take an average of eight weeks could be very costly for insurance companies.

Tagare says, "As of today, all data traffic between Asia and Europe passes through Egypt, which makes the Suez Canal a real failure point. If all the cables were cut, it will lead to a serious economic and communications disaster. That is why it is important to create an alternative that will pass through Saudi Arabia to Oman and the UAE - not only to create an alternative route for transmitting data in the event of a crisis, but to cut the prices charged by Egypt for this traffic."

Egypt does not publish figures, but estimates are that a telecom provider that lays a cable through the Suez Canal must pay $200-250 million over the life of the cable, which ranges from 15-20 years.

Only three cables link up Israel

Israel is currently connected to the world by just three submarine Internet cables, which are close to their peak capacity. There is Telecom Italia's MedNautilus, which carries 50% of data transmission, while cables laid by Tamares Telecom and Bezeq International carry 30% and 20% of data transmission respectively.

Telecom and media consultancy company TASC managing partner Ilan Schory tells "Globes," "Israel is not exposed to cables that continue to the Red Sea but is connected via the Mediterranean to end stations in Cyprus, Greece and Italy. But this is not sufficient. Transmissions have grown by 30% annually and are close to maximum capacity.

In terms of the security threat, cutting a communications cable leading to Israel would be no easy matter as it would involve an operation at great sea depth but on the coast communication cables can be easily damaged, since the only protection is against sharks.

Bezeq International has protected its communication cable by installing security cameras at its docking stations abroad. In Israel, the main communication cables are anchored at secure sites in Haifa, Tel Aviv and near Netanya.

Israeli telecoms Cellcom, Partner, Bezeq and Hot are connected to Jordan at the Sheikh Hussein, Allenby and Aqaba border crossings, but these cables work mainly to connect Jordanian telecommunications companies such as Orange Jordan as well as Paltel to the global Internet network, so the connection does not provide significant Israeli traffic from Jordan to Asia.

Tagare explains that Israel is at a global disadvantage due to dependence on a limited number of means of communication. "It is very important to build new routes that will carry communications overland through Saudi Arabia," he says. "One such line could connect Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and from there to Oman and UAE, and until that happens, Israel will suffer a significant disadvantage."

The dangerous point at the Bab al-Mandab Strait

Google and Telecom Italia's Blue Raman submarine Internet cable, which was due to begin operations this year, could help provide capacity for Israel, but its launch has been postponed until 2025, due to protracted procedures in Saudi Arabia, not related to Israel.

This cable will pass along the seabed at the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which has been a security flashpoint in attacks by the Houthis and won't help Israel in coping with the security threat.

At least two new submarine communications cables are due to be laid and will help Israel diversify its dependence on the existing underwater cables. These cables are supposed to link the communications corridor between Ashkelon and Eilat of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Co., which received a permit from the Israeli government last June.

However, eight months after the ceremonial announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Communications Shlomo Karhi, the project has not yet been built, following a problematic plan approved by the Ministry of Finance and the Government Companies Authority, which fears that if the terms of the outline plan are not changed, the project will have difficulty being implemented.

The advantage of the Eilat Ashkelon corridor is that it passes through desert far from roads and populated areas, and organizations in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia have previously expressed interest and a desire to cooperate on this route.

Another planned cable is the Andromeda cable of Tamares Telecom and Grid Telecom, which is expected to be launched at the end of this year and pass between Cyprus and Greece, and reach Israel at Tirat Hacarmel and continue overland to Eilat, and from there to Aqaba in Jordan and the city of Haql in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

"Globes" has learned that in addition to these two cables at least four more submarine cables are to be laid to Israel, and from here to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. But as long as the war rages, and the peace agreement with Saudi Arabia continues to be delayed, the projects are still only a dream.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 29, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Houthi rebels credit: Reuters Khaled Abdullah
Houthi rebels credit: Reuters Khaled Abdullah
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