By Matt Smith
(Reuters) - A more reliable terrestrial broadband network could enable Iraq to become a transcontinental transit route for Internet traffic, a senior executive at one of two firms providing submarine connectivity to the war-torn country told Reuters.
Iraq is ideally located to carry Internet traffic between Asia and Europe and built a submarine cable landing station at Al Faw on Iraq’s Gulf coast to do so.
Two companies – Qatar’s Gulf Bridge International and India’s Global Cloud Xchange – connected submarine cables to the stations, but Iraq’s stultifying bureaucracy delayed their activation to the terrestrial network, which is wholly owned by state-run Iraqi Telecommunications and Post Company (ITPC).
“The process for ITPC to find us a marketing partner took 3-4 years to be finalised – about 10 companies went through a screening process,” said Rory Cole, Global Cloud Xchange chief operating officer.
Meanwhile, neighboring Iran prospered as a partner in Europe-Persia Express Gateway (EPEG), a fiber cable from Frankfurt to Oman launched in 2012.
Cole said an Iraqi rival could compete “because it’s a shorter route, but you have to have a reliable network”.
Iraq’s refusal to allow private companies to own fixed networks has slowed broadband build-out, while tough terrain and Islamic State’s seizure of vast swathes of territory have exacerbated difficulties.
“If you’re going from Al Faw to Basra to Baghdad to Istanbul you’re going to have an awful lot of sites regenerating that signal, they need to be protected,” said Cole.
“Each one of those hops exposes it to more interference.”
Submarine cables can run for hundreds of kilometers between points, but terrestrial cables connect to power sources along its route to relay the signal.
“That requires investment in power – if it’s off-grid, that means generators and fuel, while (it) also requires air conditioning to keep cool,” said Cole.
Kurdish Internet firms transit about three-quarters of Iraq's networks and 90 percent of individual IP addresses on those networks, U.S.-based research firm Dyn estimates.
Normally, submarine cables would carry the bulk of traffic.
“Utilization is very low compared to what they can do,” said Erik Kreifeldt, a senior analyst at consultants TeleGeography.
"There’s some frustration from global wholesale and enterprise guys who wish it was an easier option for transit traffic.”
Thirteen submarine cables land at Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia has 12, said Kassim Al-Hassani, ITPC chief executive from 2005 to 2012, warning Iraq needed at least four.
“We need better connections to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey,” he added. “There are 2-3 cable consortiums bypassing Iraq, but they could have a shorter route through Iraq.”
(Editing by Robert Birsel)