(Adds detail from France Telecom; changes dateline from Cairo)
By James Regan
PARIS, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Breaks in three submarine cables under the Mediterranean, possibly caused by a ship’s anchor, have disrupted Internet and international telephone services in parts of the Middle East and South Asia, officials said on Saturday.
A ship carrying a submarine repair robot was on its way to the site between Sicily and Tunisia on Saturday, with work expected to take until the end of the year, a spokesman for ship owner and telecom operator France Telecom FTE.PA said.
The undersea cables, owned by different consortiums including France Telecom, were damaged between 0728 GMT and 0806 GMT on Friday. A fourth minor cable linking Malta and Italy may also have been affected, the spokesman said.
“There are two theories: either the anchor of a ship, which could have displaced them ... or an earthquake. We think it’s the first theory,” spokesman Louis-Michel Aymard said.
The “Raymond Croze” cable ship was expected to reach the scene at 2200 GMT on Sunday, when the remotely operated “Hector” robot would start a search for the cables, which could have been dragged several kilometres, Aymard added.
The damage to the SEA-ME-WE3, SEA-ME-WE4 and FLAG cables caused varying degrees of disruption from Zambia to India and Taiwan.
“We think we will get SEA-ME-WE4 repaired by December 25. For 4 and 3, it should be done by the end of the year, or maybe January 1,” Aymard said. France Telecom is not a partner in the FLAG consortium.
The disruption reduced Egypt’s Internet capacity by about 80 percent. Technicians were restoring some capacity by diverting communications traffic through the Red Sea, said a Communications Ministry official, who asked not to be named.
Residents said Internet service was either non-existent or very slow. The gravity of the outage varied from area to area and according to the service provider.
In Pakistan, Internet service provider Micronet Broadband said its customers were facing degraded Internet services because of problems on the SEA-ME-WE3, SEA-ME-WE4 and FLAG lines.
In January, breaks in undersea cables off the Egyptian coast disrupted Internet access in Egypt, the Gulf region and south Asia, forcing service providers to reroute traffic and disrupting some businesses and financial dealings.
Several Egyptian residents said late on Friday that it was impossible to call the United States but calls to Europe appeared to be going through.
In Pakistan, Micronet engineer Wajahat Basharat said on Saturday Internet traffic was congested and slow and some of it was being diverted to other routes.
Stephan Beckert, an analyst with the U.S.-based telecommunications market research firm TeleGeography, said the three affected cables were the most direct route for moving traffic between Western Europe and the Middle East.
“If those three cables were cut and are completely out, it would be a fairly significant outage,” he said.
“It is going to cause problems for some customers. It’s certainly going to slow things down,” Beckert said, adding that he did not believe financial institutions would be hit hard.
“Generally speaking we find that they are extremely painstaking about making sure that they have redundant capacity,” he said.
Officials with AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications, the two largest U.S.-based carriers, said that some customers in the Middle East had lost all service, while others were experiencing partial disruptions on Internet connections.
Verizon had rerouted some of its traffic by sending it across the Atlantic, then the United States, across the Pacific, and on to the Middle East.
A New York Stock Exchange spokesman said he was unaware of any disruptions in trading. Exchanges CME Group, and IntercontinentalExchange said they had no disruption in their trading on Friday.