KARACHI – Internet users are likely to face a slowdown in browsing speed once again as an important submarine cable that manages 40 percent of the country’s total bandwidth (internet traffic) will undergo maintenance and repairs from April 28, industry sources said. They also suggested that given the undersea cables’ vulnerability to damage, Pakistan needed to increase its internet landing points.
South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-4, also known as SMW-4, is one of the four submarine cables that connect Islamabad globally via the internet. The 18,800-kilometre long fibre optic cable developed fault in its western segment between Alexandria (Egypt) and Marseilles (France) on March 27.
The breakdown came at a time when India-Middle East-Western Europe, another internet landing point for the country, was being repaired and the country’s internet traffic plummeted over 60%.
According to updates, the internet service providers (ISPs), which received bandwidth from SMW-4 Network Operations Centre, the repair work of the affected segment will start on April 28 and might continue into May. The centre, however, did not give an estimated time the repair will take.
“The damaged cable is pulled to the surface by divers or robots and is then repaired,” Convener of Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan, Wahajus Siraj, said.
“Sometimes the damaged part is replaced by a joint of up to three kilometres depending on the damage done,” he said. Once repaired, the robots replace it well under the seabed.
Admitting that undersea cables are vulnerable to damage, Siraj said, “These cables are usually damaged by the anchors of fishing trawlers, which can penetrate the seabed and strike the undersea cables.”
The high-end users, according to industry sources, had switched to more expensive satellite-based connections, but a majority of internet users faced myriad of problems as a result of this breakdown.
The operators should increase the number of undersea links to avoid major outages in the future, they said.
“Given the frequent outages and risk of damage to the undersea cables, we must double our landing points,” suggested Haroon Rashid, Director of Interconnect Partners, who also works for the Broadband Commission of International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations specialised agency for ICTs based in Geneva.
The ISPs operating in the country, especially multinationals, can initiate this, Rashid said. “We can achieve a broader objective by serving the landlocked countries through our fibre optic network,” he said, adding in that case, ITU may be able to help them because it promotes ICT and broadband development in least developed countries.
Siraj also supported the idea of increasing the number of country’s internet links.
“Having more landing points will increase reliability of services,” he said. But he maintained that the ISPs have diverted internet traffic to alternative routes and the repair work should not have any significant impact on browsing.
Despite internet outages, the ISPs have billed full amount to their customers. The Ispak chief, however, was quick to defend the ISPs on that front. “We don’t get any credit from our bandwidth provider, how could we pass it on to the end users,” he asked.
By contrast, the country’s largest broadband provider has a different take on that matter.
“As per the SOP, customers are charged for the bandwidth package, and not on a daily basis,” Senior Manager Corporate Communications, Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited, Aqeel Shigri, said. If a customer is unable to use the internet the whole month, he can be compensated, he said.
The telecom giant, which accounts for more than 60 percent of the broadband market, checks the customer’s data usage when a complaint is made, Shigri said, and decides if the customer needs to be compensated. “We recently adjusted a couple of bills where the complaints were justified,” he said.
Responding to a question about the SMW-4 repair, the PTCL spokesman said, “Overall it is the Middle East and Europe that’s more dependent on this cable, it will not affect our customer base.”