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What, no connection? Internet outage further darkens life in Yemen

Yemenis have long suffered a humanitarian crisis, but a severed wire makes it even worse when they can no longer connect.

SANAA, Yemen — Maher al-Hammadi stands outside his two-story internet cafe just near the Sanaa University around 1 p.m. On an average day, it is right when the Sunset Cafe is filled with students — but not on Jan. 14, the sixth day of the internet outage since the severing of a submarine cable last week.

"Primetime for my customers is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.," Hammadi told Al-Monitor, pointing with frustration at half a dozen people in the cafe.

He explained that ever since last week, his clients fall into two categories: those who leave immediately when he tells them that the internet connection is slow and those who try to get online anyway, wait patiently for a while, then storm off, resigned and angry.

Right then, Ahlam al-Jabali, a business management graduate, comes down from the second floor of the cafe, the area allocated to women and separated with a curtain. She explained to Al-Monitor that she is working on a film that will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival and that she needs the internet for her work. She is accompanied by two of her relatives, as her family would not allow her to go without a chaperone to an internet cafe, a venue that is still frowned upon by conservatives.

Wearing glasses, a hijab and an all-enveloping black cloak, Jabali lamented that she was not able to get a connection. "I expected the connection to the internet here to be better [than my cellphone] but it is worse," she told Al-Monitor.

"The internet cut makes everything difficult,” she said, complaining that both her school assignments and filming project is delayed. 

On Jan. 9, an official at the Ministry of Telecommunications told the Houthi-run state news agency Saba that a large number of the internet correspondence connections went out of service when a submarine cable was cut off in Suez.

The Public Telecommunication Corporation and Yemen International Telecommunications (TeleYemen) announced that more than 80% of the international internet capacities was now down. Saba quoted an unnamed official as saying that efforts to follow up the cable repair were underway, and they hoped for a return of normal service soon.

Almost simultaneously, Yemen Mobile, which is run by the ministry, sent clients text messages notifying them that “more than 80% of the international internet capacity” was down. Ironically, due to the poor connection, many of the clients did not receive it until the next day, which only added to their frustration and anger.

Mobeen Foad, 18, said by the time he received the text message he had already shattered the screen of his cellphone in anger and lost some of his info by trying to reformat the phone, thinking the cut was due to his phone and not the network.

Standing near a closed bookshop on Al-Dairy Street in Sanaa , Foad told Al-Monitor, "I was surfing the internet and the connection seemed fine. But I could not open new pages. So I got angry and I hit my phone until [the screen] cracked,” he explained, embarrassed.

Foad said he has been trying to use both Wi-Fi and the 3G data network of Yemen Mobile, but none worked well. "I use the internet 24 hours a day," he said.

He is not alone. One of the stereotypes about Yemenis is that the men come together every afternoon to chat and chew khat until well after sunset. But social media has changed that — even in the company of others, people use their phones to chat and use the internet, like everywhere else in the world.

Fares Anam, a Yemeni filmmaker, claimed that this interruption may not be so bad after all. “Now that there is no connection, I suggest that you turn off your phone and start talking with your family and friends,” he wrote in a Facebook post Jan. 9. 

More people will be forced to take his advice on turning off the phone as the normalization of services is delayed. "A 20 GB internet link has been restored as an urgent solution for internet disruption until the repair of the cable is completed," a second statement from TeleYemen said Jan. 12, without giving details. In the meantime, some news websites reported that one of the reasons the repairs are taking so long is that the Ministry of Telecommunications is installing eavesdropping devices in the new connections.

An article by the American magazine Wired said that YemenNet, another internet service provider in Yemen that belongs to the Ministry of Telecommunications, "was able to restore some connectivity by working with Oman's major ISP, Omantel, to receive service from a different undersea cable."

Wired also reported that it can take weeks to repair a cut cable.

Taha al-Radaa'i, director general of YemenNet, told Al-Monitor the specially equipped ship responsible for repairing the cable is based near Oman and is not yet dispatched to Suez. He explained that several other countries besides Yemen were affected by the severed cable. “There are several countries impacted by this disruption, but Yemen was the worst hit because other countries have alternatives and multiple tracks,” he said.

Wired, as well as other press reports, indicate that the entire Red Sea region has dealt with slow to nonexistent connectivity since the severing of a single submarine cable, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Pointing at a map, Radaa'i said the other countries have other alternatives like the "new Sea-Me-We 5" and "AAE-1" maritime cable systems that would have alleviated Yemen currently if the "aggression of the [Saudi-led coalition]" didn't prevent those connections.

"The AAE-1 system is ready to be connected but the coalition prevented it," he said, adding that the coalition also prevented connection to the Sea-Me-We 5 cable to Hodeidah, the country’s port on the Red Sea.

Hodeidah is the key lifeline entry of most of Yemen's commercial imports and humanitarian aid. The Iran-allied Houthis control much of Hodeidah while the Saudi-backed government troops have advanced to its southeastern districts, making the city a flashpoint in the country's civil war.