Telecom group reroutes Red Sea internet traffic after Houthi attack

The Red Sea attacks have left the region increasingly unstable, damaging undersea cables and putting connections and services around the world at risk, forcing telecoms and tech groups to reroute internet traffic.

Several companies said they had taken action after reports that undersea submarine cables were severed by the Rubymar ship’s anchor. The Rubymar ship was abandoned after it was targeted and sunk by Houthi rebels in February.

Tech giant Microsoft said this week that “ongoing cable cuts” in the Red Sea were affecting overall capacity on Africa’s east coast and changing traffic flows as a result.

The Red Sea is a key route for sending Internet traffic between the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe via undersea cables, which carry 99% of intercontinental data. TeleGeography Consulting estimates that more than $10 trillion worth of financial transactions are transmitted over these cables every day.

The Houthis have recently escalated their attacks on commercial shipping in the area, which the group says is an effort to support the Palestinians in the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. The Iran-backed group claimed its first fatality in an attack in early March.

The United States says the recent severing of undersea cables in the Red Sea, which disrupted global traffic, was caused by an anchor dragged out when the Red Sea sank.

Hong Kong-based Hutchison Global Communications, which provides global coverage, estimated that 25% of traffic was affected after multiple undersea cables were cut, and said it had taken steps to reroute affected traffic.

Seacom, which owns several undersea cables, said it had also changed service routes last month, acknowledging that some customers’ operations in East and Southern Africa had been affected.

The company said last week it was “optimistic” that cable repairs would be carried out in the second quarter but was “noting the ongoing volatility in the region” which it said could pose unforeseen challenges.

Other leading telecom companies downplayed concerns about spending cuts. Orange uses but does not own the damaged cable in the Red Sea and the company said it was taking extra safety measures. But the French operator, along with AT&T and Tata Communications, told the Financial Times they would be able to reroute traffic if problems arise.

Map showing recent Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and communications cables that may have been damaged as a result.Source: Telegraph Geography and Financial Times research

Executives and analysts say it’s not uncommon for cables to be damaged and rerouted, with the most common causes being dragging anchors and trawler activity.

Alan Mauldin, director of research at TeleGeography, said these factors trigger a glitch “somewhere in the world every three days on average.”

Carriers have capacity on many different cables and most countries can withstand multiple cable outages, he said.

Mauldin added: “If two or three more cables are removed, and they are high-capacity cables, it could have a more severe impact on connectivity for certain network operators or countries.”

Keri Gilder, chief executive of digital infrastructure company Colt Technology Services, said the company had previously had to quickly move data from one cable to another due to damage caused by fishing boats.

“Latency can have an impact on quality of service,” Gilder added, referring to the time delay in getting data from one place to another, which could affect things like video calls. “For our business, that’s milliseconds.”

Colt doesn’t have to divert traffic to the Red Sea, but Gilder said the route is “very congested” and she wasn’t surprised the cable was cut because the road is relatively narrow and shallow.

The Houthis deny deliberately targeting undersea cables, while Yemeni officials say they are in daily contact with international submarine companies in the Red Sea and will provide support to repair any damage.

Chris van Zinnicq Bergmann, chief commercial officer of Italian subsea partner Unitirreno, which is building cables in the Mediterranean, said: “The worst case scenario is that all the cables are cut. That would be a very serious situation.”

This will cause traffic to be diverted to longer routes, impacting the quality of video traffic, financial transactions and cloud applications, he added. “If a circuit on a trading company’s cable is cut, it’s a big issue for that particular company because it takes time to get an alternative connection up and running. Also, if you’re taking a long route, this will impact trading , as you will increase the latency of the connection.”

Marcus Solarz Hendriks, a researcher at the think tank Policy Exchange, noted that the 2006 earthquake hampered international banking services and trade in Hong Kong and South Korea.

While most network operators were able to reroute traffic, the incident caused slow connection speeds for Hong Kong internet users and Bloomberg terminals used by traders were out of order across the city.

“If the Red Sea cable incident had sufficiently disrupted digital bandwidth, the impact would have been equally severe,” said Solarz Hendriks.

Additional reporting by Alexandra Heal

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