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?