Egypt and the Internet — A Telecom Lesson

Originally published in the February 2011 issue.

In the  first few days of the recent unrest in Egypt, authorities sought to limit the  ability of anti-government protesters to organize and build their following by shutting down cell phone, Facebook, Twitter and, eventually, all Internet  communications.

At first, it seemed surprising that this was accomplished with  such apparent ease.  After all, Egypt has an estimated 20 million Internet  users, served by hundreds of service providers.  However, the infrastructure is owned by just four – Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt  and EtisalatMisr.

By cutting off connections to those four ISPs, government  authorities effectively interrupted nearly all Egyptian telecommunications  activity – coming or going.  The result – it wasn’t just protesters who  were impacted.  It also affected every bank, business, government agency, website or other organization in the country.

Infrastructures that have such readily identifiable choke points are increasingly rare in more typical, modern meshed Internet topology –
particularly at a country level.  But as we have seen, they still exist.

Lesson for Corporate Networks. They can also exist within corporate-wide infrastructures – particularly among organizations that have failed to keep up with regular maintenance and upgrading of telecommunications systems during the course of a company’s growth, and through mergers and acquisitions of other entities.

Indeed, law firms, accounting firms, healthcare facilities and other industries that have experienced a recent spate of mergers and acquisitions and are trying to coordinate disparate or distant facilities and offices and bring them together into a coherent network should take special note.

As voice and data networks expand, contract and evolve into new technological territory it becomes increasingly critical to review and examine the single points of failure and redundancy built into the solutions in place.

Much like the case of Egypt, with its scant four points of egress to the Internet, a business or healthcare facility may only have one or two paths to the telephone network, wide area network or Internet (only one in many cases).

Planning Ahead for Potential Problems. Before an outage occurs, the following questions can help identify the path to avoidance of downtime and minimized duration of repair.

  • What might fail?
  • What are the implications? Cost of business, patients’ lives, etc.
  • How long will it take to restore service?
  • What alternatives are available?

In Egypt, people are creating mesh networks by way of ad hoc router-to-router connections.  While they are not connected to the internet, it does allow people to communicate amongst themselves.  The only route to the outside world is via ham radios and morse.  Another alternative enabled by Google (by capitalizing on last week’s acquisition of SayNow) has established some phone numbers where voice messages are being converted into twitter.

This cobbling together of solutions is allowing internal communication to be aggregated and slowly trickle outside the country. In other words, Egypt has a disaster recovery mode, it’s just not ideal.  And less than ideal might not be good enough, especially in healthcare, where reliable communications can mean the difference between life and death.

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