SMW-3 Internet Cable Damage: Pakistan’s PTCL Satellite Backup Satisfactory
By Pervaiz Lodhie & Babar Jhumra

The SEA-ME-WE-3 fiber optic internet cable was reportedly damaged on Monday at the floor of the Arabian Sea 50km south of Karachi, Pakistan. A service vessel belonging to E-Marine, a UAE company hired for cable maintenance, was dispatched from the United Arab Emirates to undertake repairs.

This has been a major blow to the IT industries both at Pakistan and India. Some better-funded Indian call centers had switched over to satellite backup systems, where available, but that not all centers had invested in such connections.

While in Pakistan, Pak Telecom Company Ltd - PTCL, Pakistan’s major backbone provider scrambled to provide immediate satellite backup systems on priority to major Business Process Outsourcers and International Call Centers.

Damage to the undersea telecommunications cable SEA-ME-WE3 (SMW3) Monday initially disrupted most of Pakistan's international telephone and Internet connections, but the outage spread to India, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Djibouti as repairs were started yesterday.

Anthony Mitchell reports “Call centers in India using connections through the Reliance Group, India's largest corporate conglomerate, to SMW3 to reach customers in the U.S. were experiencing service outages for the past day, they reported to, a company that specializes call center program management, etc.”

He adds “There have been conflicting reports on the expected duration of the service disruptions caused by the damaged cable. The Press Trust of India, Reuters, Pakistan Press and Xinhua have all reported that disruptions are anticipated to last for two weeks.”

Pervaiz Lodhie, President and CEO, Ledtronics Inc. Los Angeles, one of the leading firms of the LED [Light Emitting Diode] industry, who outsources its complete MIS, BPO and Call Center support to NBA Computers, Karachi, said that aside from a slight glitch felt on Monday in the services being outsourced to Pakistan, “it was business as usual for us. We have not experienced any problems or service degradation from working with NBA Computers at Karachi, Pakistan.”

Babar Jhumra, Managing Partner, NBA Computers International Call Center and BPO in Karachi, Pakistan, said that call center operators in Pakistan have been told that service levels on SMW3 could be restored as early as the end of the day today. He also said that he was satisfied with PTCL’s performance in providing immediate sat-link. Although officials for the Internet Service Provider Association of Pakistan (ISPAK) have said that repairs might not be completed until Friday.

SMW3 provides Pakistan with its sole high speed cable access. All call centers in Pakistan serving international customers have been without their usual level of telecommunications service since Monday.

The government of Pakistan has provided satellite backup systems to international call centers in that country at no charge to those centers, in order to make them more internationally competitive, and all international call centers in Pakistan are reportedly operating on satellite backup connections now.

Mr. Nasser Jhumra, CTO and Partner, NBA Computers based in Los Angeles added that “vital satellite backup services have kept the call center industry in Pakistan functioning, and degraded line quality was next to minimal.”

IT firms that did not qualify as pure international call center operations and have not been allowed independent access to satellite backup capacity in Pakistan have reportedly been particularly hard hit.

Additional two new satellite connections have been reportedly added to the existing three sat-links providing Pakistan with 80% of in international bandwidth needed by the International Call Center and BPO industry, which is also enough to support about 1,500+ voice lines using conventional technology.

According to ISPAK, there are over 50 ISPs in that country, serving more than 10 million Internet users who have only been able to send and receive emails but not to surf the internet.

The view from NBA Computers' Jhumra was positive. He said that when service disruptions initially occurred on Monday, his center lost Internet connections for only a few minutes, but their voice connection has been on satellite backup systems provided by PTCL, since then. Jhumra said that NBA Computers is possibly among the few call centers still operating in Pakistan.

As a pure call center operation, NBA has been receiving satellite backup service continuously and at no cost since service on SMW3 was initially disrupted. However, satellite service has latency issues.

Mitchell’s reports “In tests conducted for late yesterday, NBA Computers reported a latency rate of 450-550 milliseconds between Pakistan and the U.S. using satellite backup lines. Latency rates above 500 milliseconds are considered below commercial quality, at least for extended use. Indian call centers tested by have also been within the 450-550 milliseconds latency range when using satellite uplinks.”

Jhumra said that work is underway to provide a separate telecommunications link for Pakistan, SEA-ME-WE-4 (SMW4), which is scheduled to go live this October.

SMW4 will provide Bangladesh with high speed connectivity as well, ushering in competition for IT outsourcing services opportunities from an English-speaking country that to date has largely remained on the sidelines of the outsourcing boom.

The lack of a redundant communications link is the most significant of Pakistan's IT challenges. There are also plans underway to build a high speed telecommunications link between Pakistan and India, which would provide additional redundancy to both countries.

Source/excerpt: Anthony Mitchell, C.E.O., US.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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