Underwater cables keep the internet online. When they congregate in one place, things get tricky.
THE ASIA-AFRICA-EUROPE-1 INTERNET cable travels 15,500 miles along the seafloor, connecting Hong Kong to Marseille, France. As it snakes through the South China Sea and toward Europe, the cable helps provide internet connections to more than a dozen countries, from India to Greece. When the cable was cut on June 7, millions of people were plunged offline and faced temporary internet blackouts.
The cable, also known as AAE-1, was severed where it briefly passes across land through Egypt. One other cable was also damaged in the incident, with the cause of the damage unknown. However, the impact was immediate. “It affected about seven countries and a number of over-the-top services,” says Rosalind Thomas, the managing director of SAEx International Management, which plans to create a new undersea cable connecting Africa, Asia, and the US. “The worst was Ethiopia, that lost 90 percent of its connectivity, and Somalia thereafter also 85 percent.” Cloud services belonging to Google, Amazon, and Microsoft were all also disrupted, subsequent analysis revealed.
While connectivity was restored in a few hours, the disruption highlights the fragility of the world’s 550-plus subsea internet cables, plus the outsized role Egypt and the nearby Red Sea have in the internet’s infrastructure. The global network of underwater cables forms a large part of the internet’s backbone, carrying the majority of data around the world and eventually linking up to the networks that power cell towers and Wi-Fi connections. Subsea cables connect New York to London and Australia to Los Angeles.
Sixteen of these submarine cables—which are often no thicker than a hosepipe and are vulnerable to damage from ships’ anchors and earthquakes—pass 1,200 miles through the Red Sea before they hop over land in Egypt and get to the Mediterranean Sea, connecting Europe to Asia. The last two decades have seen the route emerge as one of the world’s largest internet chokepoints and, arguably, the internet’s most vulnerable place on Earth. (The region, which also includes the Suez Canal, is also a global choke point for shipping and the movement of goods. Chaos ensued when the container ship Ever Given got wedged in the canal in 2021.)
“Where there are chokepoints, there are single points of failure,” Nicole Starosielski, an associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University and an author on submarine cables. “Because it’s a site of intense concentration of global movement, that does make it more vulnerable than many places around the world.”
The area has also recently gained attention from the European Parliament, which in a June report highlighted it as a risk for widespread internet disruption. “The most vital bottleneck for the EU concerns the passage between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean via the Red Sea because the core connectivity to Asia runs via this route,” the report says, flagging extremism and maritime terrorism are risks in the area.
Look at Egypt on a map of the world’s subsea internet cables and it immediately becomes clear why internet experts have been concerned about the area for years. The 16 cables in the area are concentrated through the Red Sea and touch land in Egypt, where they make a 100-mile journey across the country to reach the Mediterranean Sea. (Cable maps don’t show the exact locations of cables.)
It has been estimated that around 17 percent of the world’s internet traffic travels along these cables and passes through Egypt. Alan Mauldin, the research director of telecoms market research firm TeleGeography, says last year the region had 178 terabits of capacity, or 178,000,000 Mbps—the US has median home internet speeds of 167 Mbps.
Egypt has become one of the internet’s most prominent chokepoints for a few reasons, says Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at monitoring firm Kentik. Primarily, its geography contributes to the concentration of cables in the area. Passing through the Red Sea and across Egypt is the shortest (mostly) underwater route between Asia and Europe. While some intercontinental internet cables travel across land, it is generally safer for them to be placed at the bottom of the sea where it is harder for them to be disrupted or snooped upon.
Going through Egypt is one of the only practical routes available. To the south, cables that pass around Africa are longer; while to the north, only one cable (the Polar Express) travels above Russia. “Every time someone tries to draw up an alternative route, you end up going through Syria or Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan—all these places have a lot of issues,” Madory says. The JADI cable system that bypassed Egypt was shut down due to Syria’s civil war, Madory says, and it has not been reactivated. In March this year, another cable avoiding Egypt was severed as a consequence of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Disruption also happens around the Red Sea itself. “The Red Sea is a fairly shallow body of water, and there’s been historically a lot of cable cuts there as a result,” Madory says. In 2013, the Egyptian navy arrested three people who were allegedly cutting internet cables in the region. Other nearby cables also faced outages in the same year. The region isn’t the only cable choke point around the world. The UK, Singapore, and France are all key internet connection points, with the Strait of Malacca, near Singapore, being another chokepoint. “The Malacca Strait is also a problem area, but I don’t think it’s as bad as Egypt,” SAEx’s Thomas says.
Mauldin says the Egyptian region can be considered a single point of failure due to the number of cables in one place. However, there are reasons beyond costs to have multiple cables pass through the Red Sea. “There are values in concentration because you want networks to connect to each other,” Mauldin says. “At the same time, you have to balance that with the need to have diversity [in routes].”
When the submarine cables appear above land, at the very north of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, Telecom Egypt, the country’s main internet provider, is involved. The company charges cable owners for running cables across the country. The cables travel across land among multiple different routes—and do not go in the Suez Canal—so there is variation in how they are spread out.
“It gives Egypt a lot of power in terms of telecommunications negotiations,” Starosielski says. A recent report from Data Center Dynamics, which covers Egypt’s “stranglehold” on the submarine cable industry, cites unnamed industry sources who claim Telecom Egypt charges “extortionate” fees for its services. (Neither Telecom Egypt, Egypt’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, nor the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority replied to WIRED’s request for comment.)
Subsea cables are relatively fragile and easily damaged. Every year, there are more than 100 incidents where the cables are cut or damaged. The majority of these are caused by shipping or environmental damage. However, in recent months, there have been growing concerns about sabotage. Following the Nord Stream gas pipeline explosions, governments around the world have pledged to better protect underwater infrastructure and subsea cables. The UK has also claimed Russian submarines have been monitoring cables landing in the country.
Despite the dangers, the internet is built on resilience. It isn’t easy to take down large parts of the internet. Companies that send data through subsea internet cables don’t just use one cable and will have space on multiple cables. If one cable fails, traffic is eventually rerouted through others. (In some areas, such as Tonga, where there is only one cable, cuts can have devastating impacts.) The need for redundancy is why Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have been spending hundreds of millions on their own subsea internet cables in recent years.
When it comes to Egypt and the Red Sea, there are limited options, and more cables are often the answer. While Elon Musk’s Starlink has popularized satellite internet, this kind of system doesn’t offer a replacement for underwater cables. Satellites are used for providing connectivity in rural locations or as emergency backups, but they can’t replace physical infrastructure entirely. “They aren’t going to handle carrying hundreds of terabits between continents. That’s only cables,” Mauldin says. (Satellite systems also rely on wired connections to connect to the internet.)
That’s all the more reason to further protect routes around Egypt. Mauldin says extra landing sites are being built along Egypt’s shore, such as at Ras Ghareb, to allow cables to dock in different locations. Egyptian telecom authorities are also building a new land-based route for cables alongside the Suez Canal—it is believed cables will be housed in concrete ducts to protect them.
However, the biggest effort to bypass Egypt comes from Google. In July 2021, the company announced it is creating the Blue-Raman subsea cable that will connect India to France. The cable travels through the Red Sea, but instead of crossing land in Egypt, it reaches the Mediterranean via Israel. Google did not respond to a request for an interview, but the cable likely comes with its own geopolitical challenges. Google has split the cable into two separate projects: Blue runs through Israel and into Europe, while Raman connects to Saudi Arabia before passing along to India. (Israel and Saudi Arabia have a complex relationship.)
Mauldin says the new route, which is expected to be ready in 2024, is likely to set a precedent for more cables to travel through Israel over time. Once one cable is built, others will come. “It’s hard to turn a proposal or just a good idea into a reality,” Madory adds. “Unless you’re Google and you have limitless funds to do these things.”
Elsewhere, Thomas says the proposed SAEx cable, which she overseas, plans to bypass Europe and connect Africa to the Americas and Singapore. Thomas says the route will be an “all wet” network and claims it manages to avoid many of the current risks. “Look at all this piracy, you’ve got all of your anchors, and you’ve got high-risk countries and war zones,” Thomas says. “Our cable and Blue Ramen are unlikely to replace Egypt, we only provide alternatives.”
Ultimately, Egypt is always going to be at the center of Europe and Asia’s internet connections. Geography can’t be changed. However, Mauldin says, more should be done to protect the world’s underwater internet cables, as everyone relies on them. “It’s super important for national security, for the economy, to keep this stuff up and running.