Gulf States Turn to Iran, Russia for Internet
Sometimes, it takes a real disaster to create something genuinely new. March 2013 was a month of disasters in the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East African Internet, with major submarine cable cuts affecting SMW3, SMW4, IMEWE, EIG, SEACOM, and TE-North.
One of the “genuinely new” Internet traffic paths that emerged in response is a counterintuitive terrestrial route, linking the ancient Indian Ocean trade empire of Oman with the Internet markets of Western Europe, by way of Iran, Azerbaijan, and the Russian Caucasus. As we’ll see, its effects are now being felt across the region, from Pakistan, to Gulf states like Bahrain and Oman, to Kenya.
The EPEG (Europe-Persia Express Gateway) consortium was actually born in June 2011, as an alternative to the congested, politically uncertain Suez transit corridor. EPEG links together existing fiber routes from the Iranian, Azeri, and Russian incumbents, connected to Cable and Wireless’s network to approximate a Great Circle route to Frankfurt. With the aid of one final submarine hop across the Strait of Hormuz to Muscat, EPEG promised to deliver a major new low-latency, high-capacity terrestrial route to carry the Gulf states’ traffic to Europe.
EPEG was scheduled to begin service in the summer of 2012, but delays on the final submarine links between Iran and Oman caused the start date to be pushed, and pushed again. When Vodafone acquired Cable and Wireless in July 2012, one of the attractions of the deal may have been the prospect of participating in EPEG — when the project reached completion, Vodafone/C&W would sit astride the first low-latency terrestrial link connecting the Gulf region to the financial and content markets of Western Europe.
We reported in February 2013 that in the wake of Russian service interruptions in the Black Sea, Iran’s DCI had begun receiving Internet transit from Omantel, indicating that the missing link in the southern path was alive at last. We began watching intently for signs of end-to-end service activation on EPEG.
Last month, we saw them.
To some within the GCC, EPEG may seem geopolitically implausible, but as a lower-latency alternative to Egyptian transit, it makes a lot of sense.
Here are some screenshots from our new Internet Business Intelligence suite, due out later this year, showing the emergence of Cable and Wireless transit as the fastest transit path into Oman (click on image for higher resolution). The new transit path from Omantel to Cable and Wireless emerges on March 31st (in green), some 15 milliseconds faster than existing transit paths from Frankfurt to Oman. Note the impact of the cable cuts before March 31st. By comparison, latency variance on the new path is tight, suggesting that the Iranian path has ample capacity and is still lightly loaded.
Batelco, Bahrain’s incumbent provider, wasted no time in taking advantage of the new, lower-latency path to Europe for selected customers.
As this screenshot illustrates, we estimate that transit through Omantel and on to Cable and Wireless through Iran reduces the round trip time for Bahraini traffic to Frankfurt by as much as 30ms. Despite the ongoing political tensions between Bahrain and Iran, that’s a pretty compelling argument.
Pakistani competitive provider Transworld (AS38193) partners with Omantel to operate the TWA-1 submarine cable, so it wasn’t a big surprise to see Omantel appear at the end of March as a remedy for the transit confusion caused by the SMW4 cut off Alexandria, Egypt. In short order, a significant portion of all the traffic to Transworld’s 2,000+ routed prefixes has begun to traverse the EPEG link through Oman and Iran.
We even see EPEG’s benefits reaching into East Africa, where AccessKenya (AS15808) picked up Omantel transit, creating a path that’s more than 20 milliseconds faster than the previous alternatives to Frankfurt.
As we’ve seen before, East African providers are very quick to adapt to changes in the transit environment, and Omantel may do very well if other providers in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania get on board.
A lot will depend on the price — Omantel is probably able to command a significant premium for the uniqueness and low latency of the EPEG route. When competing cables return to service, we’ll see how that pricing affects the new market equilibrium.
If you’d told me five years ago that we would one day see Iranian and Russian terrestrial Internet transit serving the countries of the Indian Ocean, from Pakistan to East Africa, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Today, I’m a believer. Middle Eastern and East African network operators are using the Renesys Internet Intelligence tools to sniff out new transit opportunities in the market, and finding creative ways to recover from almost unimaginable connectivity challenges.
We’ve seen all kinds of strategies emerge in the wake of the SMW4 cuts, from Telecom Egypt transit (as far away as Afghanistan), to Israeli transit, to Iraqi transit, to Syrian transit through a war zone. In the hands of Omantel, EPEG is the first solution that appears to be delivering globally visible terrestrial routes to a diverse set of regional providers.
It remains to be seen whether an Internet path through Iran and the Russian Caucasus region will have the kind of stability that enterprises require. But frankly, compared to the submarine cable competition, they’re already looking pretty good.