Disruptions to IT services thanks to damaged undersea cables have caused a hard-to-quantify level of lost business, and when it comes to apportioning criticism many fingers are now pointing at Etisalat.
The two cables, lying off the coast of Mumbai, were damaged at the same time, causing outages at two of Etisalat's service providers and resulting in the breakdown of eight international links out of 20.
A large number of network services were rendered inoperable as a result. The two service providers whose cables were affected were FLAG and Sea-Me-We-3 (South East Asia Middle East and Western Europe 3), disrupting internet traffic in India as well as the UAE.
Although the cause of the problem was clearly beyond Etisalat's control, the national telecommunications giant has been accused of failing to give customers enough information about the problem. However, it seems that the company's initial silence stemmed in large part from the fact that it took some time to identify where the fault lay. Etisalat has now made an effort to reassure customers that the problem is a top priority and should be repaired soon.
The precise location of the damage is still to be confirmed and the causes also remain unknown, but both breakages clearly happened during monsoon storms last week. Two ships sank in the Indian Ocean on May 27 and it seems the cables were either damaged during the wrecks, or by rescue ships dropping anchor. E-Marine, Etisalat's submarine cable company, has sent cable ships to repair the problems. This could still take time, however, because, as E-Marine's CEO Omar Jasem bin Kalban told Gulf News, bad weather continues in the area, which is also something of a major junction for undersea cables, further hampering efforts to identify the source of the problem.
Bin Kalban also told reporters that the current disruption should not be taken as a sign that underwater cables were unreliable. These cables have a longer lifetime and carry more bandwidth than satellites, he said. Technical failures are very rare and almost always man-made. They are mainly caused in bad weather by trawlers and illegal anchoring. Outside the Gulf, faults mainly occur in the summer with the monsoon. Inside the Gulf, they mainly occur in winter with the "shamal", or north wind.
As customers complain about loss of business, Etisalat has remained quiet about its own substantial losses as a result of the problem. It has also been keen to highlight the investments it is making to ensure the problem does not occur again. The company this week created another international link as an immediate remedial measure to try to improve services.
Future expansion of bandwidth should also minimise the damage caused by outages of this nature. From October 2005, Etisalat will be able to use the bandwidth provided by the Sea-Me-We-4 submarine cable, which has 32 times the capacity of the existing Sea-Me-We-3 system. The company hopes this will meet the growing demand for internet from the UAE, India and other Middle Eastern countries. Etisalat also plans to increase the current 20 links to 29 by the end of the year.
Such heavy investments are intended to ensure that the problem does not recur in future, and will cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. However, many analysts point out, this demonstrates that although it is a monopoly, Etisalat confounds the monopoly stereotype, demonstrating a firm commitment to improving customer services. Despite this week's internet hiccup, the company also has a reputation for efficiency and technological advancement.
Meanwhile, with the Telecoms Regulatory Authority recently approving a second telecoms licence to bring some competition into the market ahead of further liberalisation, perhaps by the end of the decade, Etisalat will need to build on its reputation to hold its own in a potentially more crowded marketplace.