Over the next few days, if not weeks, you can expect to spend more time staring at your download dialog box, waiting for videos to buffer, or clicking away impatiently as you wait for your web pages to reload.

And no, it’s not the service provider to blame; at least not entirely.

For, communication services across the country, and many parts of the world, have taken a hit owing to outages in three submarine cables that are part of the undersea cable network that connects India to the global communications system. A majority of voice and data signals are transmitted through these cables; in fact, most communications services companies are entirely dependent on them.

The current outages that affect three of the eight communications cables that connect India to the rest of the world — SMW-4, IMEWE and EIG — are likely to impact services provided by Bharti Airtel, Tata Telecommunications, Reliance Communications and public sector service providers BSNL/MTNL. These cables, which connect land-based transmission terminal stations across continents, are laid for tens of thousands of kilometres along the seabed. These thick optic fibre cables are sometimes disrupted due to natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and extreme turbidity current, or by coming in contact with fishing trawlers or shark bites. Fixing this is a complex procedure that uses advanced reflectometry techniques and may take weeks.

Reason not clear

The reason for the current outage is not yet clear. Media reports have largely attributed the disruption to an attack by three divers, who were arrested by the Egyptian Navy who found them trying to cut an undersea cable, near the Alexandria port. The cable the divers were allegedly trying to cut, reportedly in a bid to cripple communication services in Egypt, was the SMW-4 (South-East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-4), one of the eight cables carrying traffic between Egypt and Europe.

The SMW-4 also carries voice and data communications between 15 countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and France. Earlier in the week, media reports indicated that four other cables around Egypt had also suffered disruptions. The IMEWE, the other submarine cable that is currently seeing disruptions, is a 13,000-km cable system running between India and France, while the EIG (Europe India Gateway) connects India with 11 European, African and West Asian nations.

‘Sabotage unlikely’

That the Alexandria arrests have anything to do with the outages we are facing today is far from proved.

In fact, Seacom, an international private cabling systems company that owns and operates submarine cables, debunked this theory. Reacting to media reports that connected the SMW-4 damages to these arrests, the statement indicated that it is unlikely the two events are related. “We think it is unlikely that the damage to our system was caused by sabotage. The reasons for this are the specific location, distance from shore, much greater depth, the presence of a large anchored vessel on the fault site, which appears to be the cause of the damage and other characteristics of the event,” read the message posted on its website on March 27.

The message added that investigations are on by the Egyptian authorities regarding this, and that the company will announce the final cause of the cable cut once the repairs are completed and the damaged section is recovered from the seabed and inspected. Messages posted by Seacom on subsequent days have said that the company completed “reprioritisation and reallocation of capacity” and is working towards re-establishing full restoration.

Indian Internet affected?

Responding to a query on this, a statement from Bharti Airtel’s spokesperson confirmed that there have been multiple fibre cuts on SMW-4, IMEWE and EIG cable systems.

“This has affected the overall traffic between India and Europe. Bharti Airtel is working with the cable consortium for restoration of services. The voice traffic has been completely normalised,” he explained. All necessary steps are being taken to ensure data services are available to our customers by routing traffic on alternative routes, he added.

State-owned BSNL too has been affected. But, of the three cables facing disruption, BSNL depends only on SMW-4, a senior BSNL official told The Hindu. “Domestic traffic is not affected, but we are seeing some sort of a time lag when it comes to international data traffic. There is an impact, but it is not huge,” the official said, adding that the impact on data traffic is likely to be around 20 per cent.

Unlike other communications providers, BSNL also has the back-up option of satellite communication. “But barring a few specific customers who use our VSAT services, a majority of our data traffic comes from undersea cables. But we have the option of falling back on the satellite option in case of emergencies,” the official said. In the current situation, the official explains, BSNL uses other SMW cable systems. “So, the high-end routers are programmed to take alternative routes; the system measures the availability of the channel, the time taken to reach and takes an automatic and most efficient gateway. This minimises impact of such outages on broadband speeds and so on.”

A telecom industry source said that the effect is likely to be felt more, starting Monday, when the long weekend will be over and businesses will resume. “The SMW-4 carries majority traffic for many players, so the impact will definitely be felt. The repairs could take anywhere between a few days or a week or two.” These submarine cables are jointly-owned and maintained by a consortium of communication service companies, given the huge investments and resources involved.

Media reports from neighbouring Pakistan indicate that Internet services there have taken a huge hit.