Red Sea Conflict Affects Data Routes to Europe

Science and Technology - March 14, 2024

In the age of information technology, transcontinental data lines play a crucial role in maintaining global connectivity and facilitating the rapid exchange of information between different regions of the world. Global connectivity through data lines is defined as the communications infrastructure that facilitates the transmission of information between different areas of the globe. This includes the use of submarine cables, satellites, terrestrial networks and other technologies to provide fast and efficient links between countries and continents. Submarine cables are laid on the bottom of oceans and seas to connect different continents. They carry data in the form of optical signals, providing high bandwidth and transfer speeds.

In early March, a quarter of the undersea telecoms cables linking Europe, Asia and Africa were damaged. According to HGC Global Communications Limited, the functionality of 4 out of 15 lines, which provided about 25% of the region’s data traffic, was halted. Company officials claimed that these were the most important routes for transmitting data from Asia to Europe and connectivity on Asia-Africa-Europe 1, TGN, SEACOM and Europe India Gateway lines was routed through mainland China and the United States. The consequences of this incident were not long in coming and of course affected a good number of EU citizens. Shortly after the functionality of the 4 undersea data cables was disrupted, social networks went down for a few hours with many users panicking as they could no longer log in to their personal accounts.

Yemeni telecom companies have anticipated a possible sabotage of underwater cables

The fact that the escalation of the war in the Red Sea would somehow affect the underwater communications network was predicted as early as the beginning of February. At the time, Yemeni telecoms companies announced that they feared that Yemen’s Ansar Allah rebel movement, also known as the Houthis, intended to sabotage an underwater cable network in the Red Sea. The Yemeni telecoms companies’ premonition came true on the 5th of March when not just one but four links essential for Western internet and data transmission were disrupted.

A representative of the South African company Seacom, quoted by CNN, confirmed that there are problems with the underwater cable and claimed that restoration work will not begin for another month. The SEACOM representative cited that it takes a long time to obtain permits for underwater work in the region and the situation is made more difficult by political instability in the Middle East region. Indian telecoms company Tata Communications, which operates the TGN cable, has also confirmed damage to the cable near Yemen. Data Communications officials said some services have been completely disrupted and others have been diverted. Investigators have been unable to clearly identify who was behind the sabotage of data cables in the Red Sea although the incident took place in waters near Yemen. With Houthi attacks on commercial and military vessels in the Red Sea region occurring daily, it is not hard to assume that Houthi rebels could be behind the sabotage.

Red Sea data cable sabotage – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp problems

Globally, about 4 billion people are on at least one social network, and Facebook is by far the largest social network, with nearly 3 billion users. More than half of the world’s adult population, around 2.7 billion users, have the Facebook app downloaded. The largest Facebook population is in India, with over 270 million users. Europe has 387 million users while Asia’s monthly active Facebook users are 1,013,000.

On the afternoon of the 5th of March the social network Facebook appeared to be experiencing some problems. Users of the network began reporting that around 5pm they were suddenly logged out of their Facebook and Facebook Messenger accounts without being able to log back in. The Facebook platform informed users that they had entered the wrong password when they tried to log back into their accounts. Some of the users panicked that their accounts had been hacked and changed their login passwords but the problem persisted even after these changes. This is why reports started pouring in and the website DownDetector, which monitors real-time technical problems with major social media platforms, has seen a huge increase in the number of complaints that Facebook has become unavailable.  Percentage-wise, 65% of complaints were related to the user’s connection to the Facebook account, 30% were related to the connection to the server and 5% were related to the Facebook mobile app. DownDetector also saw a surge in complaints related to Instagram and WhatsApp, owned by the Meta Platforms group. The DownDetector website recorded in a very short time more than 300,000 complaints related to Facebook and 47,000 related to Instagram. Meta Platforms Group, founded and led by Mark Zuckerberg, has not offered any official reaction to the situation and this allows us to speculate that the shutdown of Meta Platforms Group’s services was most likely directly related to the sabotage on underwater cables in the Red Sea.

Elon Musk has taken advantage of the fall of the big social networks and posted ironic messages on X (formerly Twitter).

“If you’re reading this post, it’s because our servers are working,” Elon Musk posted on his own social network.

It should be recalled that the three apps: Facebook (2.83 billion users), WhatsApp (2 billion users), Instagram (1.38 billion users) occupy positions 1, 3 and 4 respectively in the top 5 of the main social networks globally. In this top is the 2nd position YouTube, where comments are extremely numerous.

Global connectivity via Seacom, TNG, Europe India Gateway and Asia-Africa-Europe data lines

The “Asia-Africa-Europe 1” data line contributes significantly to the global communications infrastructure. This data line is a complex system of submarine cables crossing three major continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. These undersea cables are essential for transmitting data, voice and images between the countries and regions connected by this infrastructure. Their construction and maintenance requires considerable efforts from the international community and the telecoms companies involved. A major importance of the Asia-Africa-Europe 1 data line is to strengthen economic and cultural links between the three continents by facilitating an efficient exchange of information. Businesses and institutions in Asia, Africa and Europe benefit from increased connectivity, leading to closer collaboration and the development of larger global markets. Importantly, the Asia-Africa-Europe 1 Data Line has the potential to support international communications and facilitate internet access for millions of people in the regions it serves. This contributes to bridging the digital divide and increasing access to information resources.

Founded in 2009, SEACOM is an undersea communications and IT infrastructure company known for its undersea cable connectivity services on the Asia-Africa route. SEACOM’s undersea cables connect African countries to Europe and Asia via the Indian Sea. SEACOM also provides customised communications solutions for businesses, including VPN (virtual private network) links and other IT infrastructure services. The company provides high-speed connectivity and internet access services, cloud computing solutions for businesses, service providers and government organisations in the African region.

In conclusion, it can be said that transcontinental data lines, including the four affected by the Red Sea conflict, are crucial for global connectivity in the digital age. These infrastructures not only support the rapid exchange of information but also contribute to the economic and social development of the regions involved. And let’s not forget that today the disruption of electricity and therefore the internet often creates panic among citizens who have become dependent on these social networks.