The most dangerous place on the Internet

The Asia-Africa-Europe-1 Internet Cable runs 15,500 miles along the seabed, connecting Hong Kong to Marseille, France. Running across the South China Sea and into Europe, the cable helps provide Internet connections to more than a dozen countries, from India to Greece. When the cable went down on June 7, millions of people were pushed offline and faced temporary internet outages.

The cable, also known as AAE-1, snapped where it briefly crosses the ground through Egypt. Another cable was also damaged by the incident, the cause of which is unknown. However, the impact was immediate. “It touched about seven countries and a number of excellent services,” says Rosalind Thomas, managing director of SAEx International Management, which plans to build a new undersea cable connecting Africa, Asia and the United States. “The worst was Ethiopia, which lost 90% of its connectivity, and Somalia then also 85%. Cloud services owned by Google, Amazon and Microsoft were also disrupted, the analysis later found.

While connectivity was restored within hours, the outage highlights the fragility of the world’s more than 550 undersea internet cables, as well as the major role Egypt and the neighboring Red Sea play in internet infrastructure. The global network of undersea cables forms much of the Internet’s backbone, carrying most of the world’s data and ultimately connecting to the networks that power cell towers and Wi-Fi connections. – Sailors connect New York with London and Australia with Los Angeles.

Sixteen of these undersea cables – which are often no thicker than a garden hose and are vulnerable to damage from ship moorings and earthquakes – run 1,200 miles across the Red Sea before jumping overland in Egypt and reaching the The Mediterranean Sea, connecting Europe with Asia. . Over the past two decades, the road has become one of the world’s biggest internet bottlenecks and, perhaps, the most vulnerable internet spot on Earth. (The region, which also includes the Suez Canal, is also a global bottleneck for shipping and the movement of goods. Chaos ensued when the container ship never given stuck in the channel in 2021.)

“Where there are choke points, there are single points of failure,” said Nicole Starosielski, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University and author of Cables Under Sailors. “Because it is a place of intense concentration of global movements, it makes it more vulnerable than many places in the world.”

The domain has also recently come to the attention of the European Parliament, which in a June report highlighted it as a risk of widespread internet disruption. “The most important bottleneck for the EU is the passage between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean via the Red Sea, as the main link with Asia passes through this route,” the report said, pointing to extremism and maritime terrorism as risks in the region. .

Pyramid scheme

Look at Egypt on a map of the world’s underwater internet cables and you’ll immediately understand why internet experts have been preoccupied with the region for years. The region’s 16 cables are centered along the Red Sea and touch land in Egypt, where they travel 100 miles across the country to reach the Mediterranean Sea. (The cable maps do not show the exact location of the cables.)

It is estimated that around 17% of global internet traffic travels over these cables and passes through Egypt. Alan Mauldin, director of research at telecommunications market research firm TeleGeography, said last year that the region had 178 terabits of capacity, or 178,000,000 Mbps – the US has average home internet speeds of 167 Mbps.

Egypt has become one of the biggest Internet bottlenecks for several reasons, says Doug Madory, director of Internet analytics at monitoring firm Kentik. First of all, its geography contributes to the concentration of cables in the region. The passage of the Red Sea and the passage of Egypt is the (mostly) shortest underwater route between Asia and Europe. While some intercontinental Internet cables cross land, it is generally safer if they are laid on the sea floor where they are harder to disturb or spy on.

Passing through Egypt is one of the only practical routes available. In the south, the cables that bypass Africa are longer; while in the north, a single cable (Polar Express) passes over Russia. “Whenever someone tries to create an alternative route, you end up going through Syria, Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan — all those countries have a lot of problems,” says Mory. The JADI cable system that bypassed Egypt was shut down because of the civil war in Syria, Madory says, and has not been reactivated. In March of this year, another cable bypassing Egypt was cut following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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