By: ERIC PFANNER
"Iraq has a very strong strategic position to become a transit point for traffic between Europe and Asia."
Iraq, cut off from decades of technological progress because of dictatorship, sanctions and wars, recently took a big step out of isolation and into the digital world when its telecommunications system was linked to a vast new undersea cable system serving the Gulf countries.
The engineers who designed and installed the cable that made shore in Al-Faw, near Basra, had to deal with an unusual number of challenges. There were more than 100 oil and natural gas pipelines to cross; stretches of shallow water where the cable had to be buried; and unexploded ordnance from the Iraq war that had to be avoided.
“It was not easy,” said Ahmed Mekky, chief executive of Gulf Bridge International, the company that built the system. “But this could be a significant foundation stone for the country’s recovery.”
The new cable will speed Internet and telephone traffic to India in the East and Sicily in the West. From there, traffic moves onto other networks to connect to the rest of the world.
Much of the world takes lightning-fast broadband service for granted, but any kind of Internet access remains a rarity in Iraq, where fewer than 3 percent of households are online. The new capacity could help bring Internet connections to 50 percent within two years, said Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, the Iraqi communications minister.
“You have to have a culture of using it, you have to have the infrastructure in place and you have to have access to low-cost devices,” he said.
Mr. Allawi and Mr. Mekky see more than just domestic benefits for Iraq. They want the connection to the undersea network to serve as the first step in a plan to turn Iraq into a conduit for telecommunications traffic between East and West, which would provide the country with lucrative revenue from use of the network.
“This is going to make Iraq an important hub for connecting Asia to Europe,” Mr. Mekky said. “It’s very strategic for the country.”
Like traders plying the ancient Silk Road, telecommunications operators routing bits and bytes from Asia to Europe and back have to pass through the Middle East, whose tricky geography and even more challenging geopolitics have sometimes made the region just as much of a bottleneck in the digital realm as in the physical world. When things go wrong, the consequences can be serious and far-reaching.
In January 2008, for example, several underwater cables off the Mediterranean coast of Egypt were inexplicably severed. Only days later, a separate cable was cut in the Gulf, near Dubai; this time, a ship’s anchor was blamed. Telecommunications activity throughout the Middle East was severely disrupted, and there were ripple effects for carriers across the world. A similar, though less serious, incident occurred in February of this year in the Red Sea.
Meanwhile, traffic is surging, both internationally and within the region, fueled by the spread of mobile phones and a belated but enthusiastic adoption of the Internet.
Demand for international bandwidth has grown at a compound annual rate of nearly 100 percent across the region over the past five years, according to TeleGeography, a research firm. That is the fastest growth of any region in the world, and roughly double the rate of increase in North America.
Until recently, options for passing through the Middle East were limited, and links within the region were often spotty. Most East-West traffic had to go via Egypt and the Red Sea; the vulnerability of that route was exposed by the 2008 incident. Telecommunications operators in the Gulf also want more competition, in order to bring down tolls.
Since 2008, governments and telecommunications companies across the region have been investing heavily in alternatives, laying cables underwater and across land at a previously unseen pace. Projects like Gulf Bridge, whose shareholders include the Qatar Foundation and sovereign wealth funds of several other Gulf states, are the result.
The Gulf Bridge network, a $500 million project in its initial phase, became active in February, providing high-speed connections to Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Iraq.
Gulf Bridge is not the only new arrival. In March, Tata Communications of India activated a $200 million cable that serves many of the Gulf countries, though not Iraq. The cable sends traffic to Mumbai, where it hooks into Tata’s worldwide network. Unlike Gulf Bridge, Tata’s cable travels over land to Oman, avoiding the Strait of Hormuz, a choke point in times of regional conflict.
With so much new bandwidth coming into service, some analysts have raised concerns about overcapacity, though network operators say it is only a matter of time before the new networks are humming with activity.
“Every time more cable systems are built, use catches up more quickly than forecast,” Radwan Mousalli, head of Tata Communications’ Middle East and North Africa operations.
Given the varied risks in the region, from errant anchors to political tensions like the saber-rattling over the Iranian nuclear program, it is important to have a diverse range of options for routing traffic, executives say.
Another cable-building project, scheduled to be completed this year, would pass through Iran, linking the Gulf to Europe via that country and Russia. But analysts say economic sanctions against Iran could make it hard to attract European customers.
Two other overland lines linking the Gulf to Europe — one recently activated, the other still under development — pass through Syria, where protests over the regime of President Bashar al-Assad continue.
Because of the crisis in Syria and the tensions over Iran, the possibility of routing traffic via Iraq has suddenly become more attractive to telecommunications operators.
“If you want to go from Saudi Arabia to Europe, you either have to go through Iran, Iraq or Syria,” said Alan Mauldin, an analyst at TeleGeography. “Which is the most stable of those countries now? Iraq has emerged as the least bad of all the options.”
Mr. Allawi said his government had reached agreements in principle with partners in neighboring countries to develop a cable system connecting the Gulf to Europe via Turkey, though he said details could not be announced yet.
Mr. Allawi is thinking big. He said Iraq could use the infrastructure improvements to turn itself into a regional Internet hub, playing host to Web sites serving neighboring countries — where, he said, communications freedoms are more restricted.
Telecommunications operators say Iraq provides additional advantages, beyond stability. It offers the shortest overland connection from the Gulf to Europe, so delays in transmission could be reduced, said John Maguire, head of wholesale services at Vodafone Qatar, a mobile operator whose shareholders include the Qatar Foundation, controlled by the royal family of the Gulf emirate.
“Iraq has a very strong strategic position to become a transit point for traffic between Europe and Asia,” he said
This is an article written by ERIC PFANNER and originally published on The New York Times on April 15, 2012.