Work under way to connect undersea cables from Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the mainland at Pattinampakkam beach in Chennai.
| Photo Credit: The Hindu

In the past week, three undersea cables connecting India to global telecom networks — Asia-Africa-Europe-1, Europe India Gateway, and Tata Global Network — have been damaged as a possible result of targeted attacks, forcing telecom operators like Bharti Airtel Ltd., Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., and Tata Communications Ltd. to reroute traffic to other cable systems.

The damage to the three undersea cable systems in the Red Sea as a result of the ongoing conflict in the region exposes the grave vulnerabilities to India’s Internet and overseas telecom connectivity systems if further infrastructure passing through the region is impacted.

While Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio declined to comment, the Tata arm said in a statement that it was “keeping a close watch on the situation and [had] initiated immediate and appropriate remedial actions”.

Two network experts said that there would be minimal, if any, impact from the current cable damage, as traffic could be rerouted to alternate systems. Tata Communications added that “all our network backbones and protected services remain unaffected.”

Choke point

While the cable disruptions highlight a choke point in all subsea connections between Europe and Asia, they are of particular concern to India because of the relatively few connections India has to such cables, and steep regulatory limits on growing India’s submarine cable industry for private companies that are not full-fledged telecom operators.

“It would be very bad for India” if there were further damage to subsea cable systems landing in India, remarked Sunil Tagare, a former telecom industry executive who consults for the undersea cable industry.

Mr. Tagare, who shared on social media the news of the three cable systems being damaged, said that Indian regulations made the country among the ‘unfriendliest jurisdictions in the world’ to build undersea cable systems. These difficulties, he told The Hindu, would hamper the ability of Indian Internet providers and telecom operators to rely on adequate redundant back-ups, a worrying prospect if more cables in the Red Sea were to get damaged.

Regulatory restrictions

Mr. Tagare cited strict ownership rules for the segment of cables in Indian waters (which he said promotes monopolies that can charge whatever they want for data to land in India), costly surveillance equipment that firms laying cables are required to install, and a bevy of other regulatory restrictions that have depressed companies’ appetite to invest in subsea cable infrastructure.

India has two major ports – Mumbai and Chennai – with submarine cable landing stations, where subsea cables connect into the Internet in India. Kochi also hosts three systems. Mumbai has about 20 cables landing in the city, and Chennai has nine cables. Some cable systems land both in Chennai and Mumbai, and many proceed to Southeast Asia, mainly to Singapore.

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