The Price of Paranoia

Pakistan, Bangladesh and submarine cables

A damaged submarine cable has crippled Pakistan’s fledgling IT-enabled economy for the last few days. SEA-ME-WE-3 (SMW3) was the only cable with sufficient bandwidth to carry Pakistan’s internet and data traffic and connect it to the rest of the world. When that cable developed a fault 30 km off the coast of Karachi, it turned out that Pakistan’s telecommunications infrastructure had no redundancy to take care of such an outage. Pakistan Telecommunications (PTCL), the part-privatised state-owned company, had to source for urgent capacity on commercial satellites. Satellite connectivity, however, is a poor substitute for submarine cable — it has relatively lesser bandwidth capacity and suffers from much longer latency. Full repair is expected to take at least two weeks. The economic loss easily runs into the millions.

Feeble attempts to paint India as unhelpful in the repair process are beside the point. The simple fact is that Pakistan’s military establishment, which ran the government and PTCL for the last several years, did not plan for such an eventuality. It compounded that mistake by regulating the satellite gateway business — making it illegal for private providers to operate their own gateways. Neither did the prevailing hostility allow for meaningful efforts to build terrestrial transit links to India; which has many more cables and a lot more capacity.

Bangladesh too placed paranoia and politics above common sense in the 1990s. Its national security perceptions meant that it did not join the international consortium that built SMW3 — because that cable was connected to India. The economic impact of this decision was that Bangladesh’s IT-enabled industry has had to await the arrival of SMW4; which is expected to be commissioned later this year. Was the fear of snooping Indians worth the decade of lost opportunities?

Related Link: Anthony Mitchell on Pakistan’s IT challenges; and Pakistan’s ISP association calls for enlightenment

3 thoughts on “The Price of Paranoia”

  1. In the 1990s, Pakistan passed up on 3 fibre optic cables for the reason that they were terminating in India.

    So in a sense Pakistan did plan for this eventuality – they concluded they would be better of with no connectivity than have their data vulnerable to interception. Ironically, the company which operates the current submarine cable which connects Pakistan to the rest of the world was bought by an Indian Firm – Reliance.

    Even more ironically, since the Pakistani govt. has no idea of modern technology, else they would have known that it doesn’t matter where the cable terminates – they could encrypt their important data.

  2. KO,

    The only cable that actually lands in Pakistan is SEA-ME-WE-3. It connects Karachi to Fujairah in the UAE.

    PTCL has purchased onward bandwidth from the UAE to the United States from the FLAG cable, operated by a private company that was acquired by India’s Reliance last year. Reliance’s acquisition of FLAG has since helped PTCL lower its access charges. Purely commercial interests are at play.

    The lesson to be drawn, here again, is for governments to get out of business.

  3. Indias continuing attempt at hegemony over the subcontinent naturally makes Bangladesh and Pakistan over-sensitive in any issue.

    As a Bangladeshi, I would characterise the decision made by our politicians as idiotic. It was almost certainly also made because of their total ignorance in respect of IT and its potential at that point in time.

    A belated and hasty but determined attempt is now being made to connect Bangladesh to the high-speed network, where the work is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

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