Technology Article, Issue XIII

TECHNOLOGY MINUTE…As I write this article, its barely been a couple of hours since the Internet link (i.e. the fiber-optic link) between Karachi and Fujairah has been restored. Pakistan’s only terrestrial link (via a submarine cable SEA-ME-WE-3) with the rest of the world went out of business sometime on the night of the 28th of June, 2005. It was restored by mid-day 8th of July, 2005. This essentially meant, we had very limited or no internet access for approximately 10 or so days. SEA-ME-WE-3 – which is an acronym for South East Asia – Middle East –Western Europe is a consortium of approximately 40+ companies/countries around the world to form one of the longest submarine cable systems in the world – stretching for a little more than 39,000 kilometers. The consortium is headed by and maintained by SingTel (Singapore Telecom). Pakistan’s PTCL is one of the O&M (Operations & Maintenance) contractors on this cable system. It was revealed that the fault occurred approximately 12 kilometers out from the landing point in Karachi, where the cable was severed due to probable anchor dragging along the sea bed by some ship. As the costal water along our shore are shallow, this is not surprising. What is surprising as the CEO of PTCL, Mr. Junaid Khan said – that this fault has been the first of its kind – in nearly 6 years of operation – i.e. since the cable system went operational. For starters, I would like to rant on three very important points: (a) At no point in time did PTCL, nor any other Government agency ever make this official on their websites. Can you fathom that an organization like PTCL foregoes to update its website on this very important newsworthy piece, this what one would cite as highly non-professional business attitude (b) secondly, no advertisement or notice to the public was placed by PTCL for that matter in any of the leading newspapers letting customers know of the fault and its daily status for upgrade. The only way anyone could get an update was via the daily press conference that PTCL did which various newspapers reported with their own twists and turns and lastly (c) if PTCL did make backup arrangements on the satellite, why not make backup arrangements for the “entire” bandwidth? To the best of my knowledge, less than a 1/3 of the bandwidth that was usually available on the fiber-optic link was put on satellites. It was incumbent on the carrier to make such backup arrangements fast and in full capacity. Granted that satellite operators do not rent out 34mbps transponders for short-term duration contracts, PTCL should nevertheless have leased as many transponders from the satellite operators to ensure operational status during the cable outage and then one the cable was restored, they could have offered these links to the industry at a discounted rate. I am very confident that there would be many takers. If nothing else, PTCL can employ with the right equipment, link optimization techniques using both satellite and its submarine cable.

Whilst it is not PTCL’s fault in the submarine cable severing, PTCL is guilty of completely mismanaging the situation. Everyday a new story would be heard via the spokesperson – so much so that after 3-4 days it reminded me of this story when I was a child called “Wolf!” I simply stopped believing PTCL as to what was happening. I had better luck with the parrot who foretells your future!

The understanding today is that alternative routes are being planned. A terrestrial link via Lahore (presumably) would be connecting Pakistan to India. This could take anywhere between 6-9 months, but since India is involved, I think one can safely double this time-frame. SEA-ME-WE-4 which is another high-speed submarine cable system is in its final stages of deployment and would constitute Pakistan’s second alternative submarine cable. Pakistan is part of this consortium and has dished out US$ 50 Million. The operational date for SEA-ME-WE-4 has been set in the early 4th quarter of 2005. The cable has supposedly already been connected to the beach-landing point in Karachi. A private consortium has also started to roll out its plans to have a 3rd submarine cable system from Karachi to Fujairah. What would be drastically different about this third cable system is the amount of bandwidth between Karachi and Fujairah. Traditionally, on the SEA-ME-WE projects, the bandwidth is assigned as per the investment made by the consortium members. Granted the bandwidth on the 3rd cable system between Karachi and Fujairah still needs to be connected to the Internet in Fujairah, it still does offer tremendous bandwidth opportunities for Pakistan to link with UAE and choose alternative connectivity from there.

I still think that PTCL should continue to offer bandwidth connectivity via its satellite links – a 470 milliseconds delay (as caused by the satellite) for pure IP traffic is simply not noticeable, unless and until you are bringing voice traffic. PTCL further needs to clearly spell out its contractual obligations to the ISPs et. al. as to the backup services and arrangements. There needs to be more active brainstorming and interaction between the only carrier and all the stakeholders who do business with the carrier. All in all, this was a first for everyone. Its been an eye-opener for all – therefore when conducting business that is essentially pegged to the bandwidth availability scale, it would be a wise decision to consider the fact that Internet outage can occur and what operating alternative are available. Hopefully, once the new cable systems are up and running, we would not have to worry about such outages.

This Article was originally written for Money Magazine

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