Houthi Assaults in Red Sea Pose Threat to Internet Infrastructure

Houthi Assaults in Red Sea Pose Threat to Internet Infrastructure

Houthi Assaults in Red Sea Pose Threat to Internet Infrastructure

The crew of the cargo ship Rubymar dropped anchor due to the recent attack by the Iran-backed Houthi, resulting in damage to undersea internet cables, as stated by the US. Is it possible for the crucial infrastructure to be targeted on a regular basis?

The shipping attacks carried out by Iran-backed Houthi in the Red Sea have given rise to a new threat, causing significant delays in the arrival of goods from Asia to Europe. The United States recently stated its belief that the sinking of a Belize-flagged, Lebanese-operated fertilizer ship has resulted in the severing of crucial undersea cables that facilitate internet connectivity between the East and West.

According to a US defense official, the M/V Rubymar was attacked on February 18, leading the crew to drop anchor and abandon the ship. Preliminary assessments suggest that the dragging anchor along the seafloor is highly likely to have caused the cutting of undersea cables, which are responsible for providing internet and telecommunications services worldwide.

From environmental peril to internet disruption, the challenges persist

Houthi Assaults in Red Sea Pose Threat to Internet Infrastructure

The sinking of the Rubymar has resulted in an environmental catastrophe. Shortly after the attack, a massive 29-kilometer (18-mile) oil spill occurred, as reported by the US military’s Central Command.

There are concerns that the fertilizer cargo on board could potentially cause further harm if it were to leak.

Although the Houthi are not directly accountable for the damage to the undersea cable, their attacks have heightened the risk of internet connectivity disruption in the region, making similar incidents more probable.

The Red Sea is home to 16 fiber-optic cables, which are laid along the ocean floor and enable internet data to travel at nearly the speed of light.

According to media reports, the damage to the cable was so severe that it resulted in a disruption of approximately 25% of internet traffic between Asia and Europe.

“Accidents involving ship anchors are the second most common cause of faults in submarine cables,” stated Tim Stronge, the vice president of research at TeleGeography, a Washington-based telecoms research firm, in a recent blog post. “On average, two cables experience faults somewhere in the world every week.”

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The repeated attacks pose a greater risk to undersea internet cables

According to Stronge, the attacks by the Houthi group not only result in increased insurance costs for container ships but also for the ships involved in laying the undersea internet infrastructure. This could potentially make it extremely expensive to install new cables in the Red Sea.

Repairing the cables in a war risk area is a real challenge, as highlighted by Peter Sand, the chief analyst at maritime research firm Xeneta. Due to the risk of attack, it is currently not possible to send a cable repair ship to the Red Sea.

As cited by industry insiders in The Wall Street Journal, the price of insuring cable ships in the vicinity of Yemen has surged dramatically, reaching levels as high as $150,000 per day.

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Alternative cable routes must be explored

It is imperative to investigate alternative routes for cables. Industry experts in the telecommunications sector are urging governments to take action in compelling the industry to discover different paths for internet cables in order to minimize the disruptions caused by the cutting of undersea lines.

Utilizing land routes through Saudi Arabia could bypass the Red Sea and other risky waters in the Middle East entirely. However, experts caution that land cabling is often significantly more expensive.

The Houthi, who have significant control over conflict-ridden Yemen, have declared that they are targeting ships linked to Israel, the US, and the UK in the Red Sea as a response to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza.

This Iran-backed group has attacked numerous vessels since the end of last year, with the Rubymar being the first ship to sink as a result of their aggression.

Last Wednesday, a missile struck the Barbados-flagged, Greek-operated vessel True Confidence, resulting in the loss of lives for two Filipino and one Vietnamese crew members. The attack caused the ship to catch fire.

While the Houthi have denied targeting undersea telecom cables, their frequent attacks have led many international shipping companies to avoid the Red Sea and the nearby Suez Canal to the Mediterranean.

Numerous ships are now navigating a lengthier and riskier path around southern Africa to reach Europe, adding an additional seven to 10 days to their journey.

The increased risks have led to higher insurance premiums for shipping, and the rerouting has caused an increase in fuel, staff, and other expenses due to the need for more vessels to cover the extended route.

Although shipping rates experienced a significant surge towards the end of last year, they have been gradually decreasing since January.

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Increased fatalities may encourage more ships to opt for the route through Africa

The occurrence of fatalities has the potential to influence more shipping companies to opt for the Africa route. Despite the dangers associated with navigating the Red Sea, certain companies still choose to transit through it. However, the recent casualties on the True Confidence and the disruption of undersea cables may lead more firms to select the safer alternative of sailing around Africa.

According to Sand, each company conducts its own risk assessment, which explains why some still choose to use the Red Sea. Nevertheless, the casualties on the True Confidence may have crossed a significant threshold, prompting a reconsideration of this route.

Furthermore, the recent attacks could prompt Western forces to implement stricter measures. These forces have already deployed naval missions in the nearby waterways to safeguard the crucial shipping trade between Asia and Europe. In November, the US and UK dispatched warships to the region as the attacks commenced. Additionally, a separate naval mission led by the European Union began in the Middle East last month, with support from various EU states, including Germany. Sand, however, does not anticipate a large-scale military response. He views the situation as a tug of war and expects the naval forces in the area to continue thoroughly investigating targets that pose a threat to ensure the secure passage of commercial ships.

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