Two ambitious new cable networks are underway that could significantly improve the reliability and speed of internet connections in the Gulf as early as this fall.
The two independent projects – one by sea, and one over land – are designed to decrease the risk of outages caused by damage to existing cable networks, and to support the increasing demand for more data as the region’s populations continue to expand.
The last major internet outage in the region occurred in 2008, when several high-speed internet underwater cables were damaged in three separate instances over the period of two weeks.
Mindful of future connectivity issues, a regional consortium of four telecom companies announced last fall plans for the Middle East-Europe Terrestrial System (MEETS) project.
Vodafone Qatar, UAE operator Du, and Kuwaiti operators Zajil and Zain disclosed details about MEETS in September 2013, saying the project would involve the installation of 1,400km of terrestrial fiber optic cable to link several countries in the region.
The first phase – a link between the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait – was originally slated to be completed by the end of this month. The second phase will join Kuwait to Turkey via Iraq.
Speaking to Doha News, a spokeswoman from Vodafone Qatar said the timetable has now been pushed to the third quarter of 2014. She also explained the company’s motivation for working on the project:
“This region only has undersea cables connecting us all to the internet and the rest of the world. There is always a risk with undersea cable for damage e.g from animals, anchors, trawlers, etc.
The MEETS cable will connect the Middle East to Europe with high bandwidth underground connectivity, which will be much more robust and resilient. All Vodafone’s customers in the region will benefit from this when the service goes live.”
In addition to the overland project, a separate endeavor is underway to link France with Singapore via the Middle East and Asia through 20,000km of undersea cable by early 2016.
That $700 million initiative, which is being undertaken by a consortium of 15 telecom companies, is called the Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 5 (SEA-ME-WE 5).
The link is an upgrade of the existing undersea lines SEA-ME-WE 4 and SEA-ME-WE3, which have been subject to a series of disconnections and faults that have severely affected internet connectivity along the route.
Internet traffic along the new cable would reach Qatar via Fujairah in the UAE, following a deal struck with UAE internet service provider Du. Other regional landing stations include Al Seeb in Oman, and Aden in Yemen.
Qatar is one of the most internet-hungry countries in the region. Last year, a UN study found residents were more connected to the internet than almost any other country in the world.
At 88.1 percent, Qatar ranked first in the developing world in terms of percentage of individuals using the internet, and second only to the Republic of Korea (97 percent) for percentage of households with internet, according to the UN Broadband Commission’s State of Broadband Report 2013.
But it’s certainly not the only country in the region dealing with unprecedented demand. In January, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) ranked the UAE as 24th (just one spot behind Qatar, at 23rd) in the world, in terms of internet penetration and adoption rates.
And according to market research and consulting firm TeleGeography, the combined demand for bandwidth in Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait grew by 69 percent between 2008 and 2012.