The association of Yemeni telecommunications companies has reported the possibility of an attack by the Houthi militias on submarine links in the Red Sea, but the risks that could arise are unclear. Telecommunications expert Roberto Cusani explained to Fanpage.it why this option still seems “far-fetched”.
Interview with Roberto Cusani
Professor of Telecommunications Engineering at the Sapienza University of Rome
Let's imagine that a road was diverted, traffic would be diverted onto other free routes. Of course, for a few hours the cars would move slowly, but in any case, even if with difficulty, the traffic would continue to flow. Here, this is what could happen if the hypothesis put forward by the General Telecommunications Corporation , the association of Yemeni telecommunications companies, according to which the Houthi militias are planning to cut the telecommunications cables laid at the bottom of the Red Sea, materializes.
It all started with the publication on a Telegram channel considered close to the Houthi militias of a map of the digital infrastructures present on the seabed of the Red Sea, accompanied by this message : “Here are the maps of the international cables that connect all the regions of the world from the sea. It seems that Yemen is in a strategic position , given that Internet lines that connect entire continents, not just countries, pass close to the state.”
The General Telecommunications Corporation – which has remained faithful to the government of Yemen recognized by the UN – condemned the hypothetical attack plan of the Houthi groups, underlining its seriousness and specifying that in the Red Sea there are 16 telecommunications cables “no thicker than the pipes used to water the plants, therefore very vulnerable”, in which it has been estimated that 17% of the world's fiber optic internet traffic occurs . One of the most strategic, the AE1 cable, is 25,000 kilometers long and connects Asia, Africa and Europe.
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Despite the alarm generated by the news – the Yemeni government's Minister of Information spoke of a threat to “one of the most important digital infrastructures in the world” – it is not clear what could happen if the hypothesis turns out to be well founded. Roberto Cusani , professor of Telecommunications Engineering at the Sapienza University of Rome , explained this to Fanpage.it.
What might happen if the Red Sea undersea cables were cut?
This attack could certainly cause significant damage, but we must frame the threat in the context from which it comes. We are talking about a war and cutting off service networks is a typical strategic move in the event of military attacks: from electricity to water, gas and obviously telephone lines and therefore the internet. Indeed, compared to other networks, suffering an attack on telecommunications infrastructures could be the least alarming hypothesis.
Why less alarming?
Suffering an attack on the internet rather than one on the electricity or gas or water grid could be less serious, not because the internet is less important – it is now the basis of the functioning of most services and the economy – but because its very nature: we must in fact think that if the Houthi militias cut these submarine cables, they would obtain that all the data traffic that passes through them would have to be redirected to other channels. But the internet was born with military purposes and was designed precisely to be able to do this and to resist any damage or attacks to network nodes.
What happens to the connection if a cable is cut or blocked?
If a cable is cut – as the Houthis threaten to do – the data diverts its path and seeks another one that takes it to the same destination. The Internet was built to allow for these continuous alternative paths. Imagine it like a spider's web: it is made up of a connection of nodes, which act as a connection to many connections, which in turn start from other nodes. When we send a file, this is unpacked into many small “packets” of data, which are then sent from the network to the destination via a path that is not pre-established: as this data travels it follows the “best path”. So if they encounter a blocked or “diverted” path, they change direction to look for another path.
What consequences could occur in the functioning of the connection?
Clearly this could lead to significant, but not unsolvable, inconvenience. An attack on individual connections – like the one the Houthis are hypothesized to be planning – would at most produce a jam on the remaining active nodes, which would therefore face an overload of traffic to manage. To have truly significant damage, the attackers would have to be able to cut not one or two wires, but many and in different geographical points.
Do we run the risk of entire countries remaining isolated?
The nature of the internet, designed to resist damage, makes it very difficult to isolate an entire area, such as a country. It would be necessary to burn so many bridges as to make such an operation unlikely. It is no coincidence that cyberattacks exist: when you want to hit a country by isolating it, in fact, it is easier to act through hackers working remotely, rather than moving weapons and people to manually cut underwater cables located on the seabed.
In the event of an attack, how could we defend ourselves?
In addition to militarily garrisoning sensitive areas to defend them, the best countermeasure would be to provide an alternative route to the connection. To do this, you could install a satellite that can take the place of any cut cable, so as to allow the connection to “override” the damaged point. Obviously, a very powerful bandwidth would be needed, capable of handling the high load of data that normally travels along transoceanic connections.