By Lê Nguyễn Bảo Hương
In the first month of 2023, the Intra-Asia and Asia-Pacific Gateway subsea cables are reported broken. This causes dramatic degradation in Internet quality for users across Southeast Asia and especially Vietnam.
Late last year, another two fiber optic cables also faced issues and have not been resolved. For the first time ever, four out of five submarine cables that connect Vietnamese users to the international community are damaged.
Cable disruption has been a chronic issue in Vietnam since 2017. In a country where 74% of the population need online connectivity, not being able to have reliable and available Internet access is detrimental to daily users, businesses, and government operations. I urge Internet service providers (ISPs) in Vietnam as well as relevant international stakeholders to cooperatively (1) fix the broken cables in a timely manner and (2) diversify Vietnam’s Internet infrastructure by expanding its terrestrial cable network.
The Internet is Physical
Yes, the Internet is a physical thing. The emails we send, the movies we stream, and the data we work with daily are transmitted through fiber optic cables. Most of them lay in the ocean and stretch across continents.
The cables are made out of glass or plastic – materials that prioritize the transmission of information with the speed of light. Thin as human hair, these cables are responsible for communicating 99% of international data.
The cables are coated inside a plastic tube to protect them from water and laid across the ocean floor by ships. Currently there are 750,000 miles or 552 submarine cables in the world.
In Vietnam alone, five specific submarine cables connect the country to regional and international networks: Intra-Asia (IA), Asia-Pacific Gateway (APG), Asia-America Gateway (AAG), Asia-Africa-Europe 1 (AAE-1), Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 3 (SMW 3). Four of the five are broken. The only functioning SMW3 is an old line and set to be liquidated.
These cable networks are run jointly by multinational telecommunication conglomerates and/or private corporations. Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group (VNPT), a state-owned company, oversees the AAG and APG which have direct landing bases in three provinces in Vietnam. Viettel, a private telecom company and the largest mobile operator network in the country, co-invested in the AAE-1. These consortiums make repair planning difficult, as there are many stakeholders involved in the management of subsea Internet cables.
Broken Cables, Broken Connections
Despite laying under water, Internet cables are prone to physical damage. More than 100 incidents occur every year due to human activities and environmental impacts. Ships’ anchoring and fishing activities account for 65-75% of all cable faults, according to the International Cable Protection Committee. Natural disasters, especially in a country prone to tropical storms like Vietnam, contribute to other cases of Internet interruptions.
Faulty cables cause delay in Internet connections, loss in international data, and disruption to business operations. In the recent damage to the Intra-Asia line, online information from Vietnam to Singapore is completely suspended. Many Vietnamese users cannot access their banking accounts, the stock markets, and insurance information.
Frustrations also grow among small business owners. Thanh Trung, who runs an online retail store, exasperated at the slow Internet. “I was planning to kick-start the new year with dozens of orders waiting to be processed, but an hour passed and I still couldn’t access the management page. It means orders were delayed and my customers are still waiting,” he said. The e-commerce sector is forecasted to reach a value of $23 billion in 2025. Thanh Trung represents a growing share of e-commerce business owners in Vietnam who depend on reliable and available Internet connections for their living.
Repair and Diversify
The Vietnamese government, private telecom enterprises, and relevant international stakeholders need to not only repair the broken cables in a timely manner, but also invest in long-term solutions in order to diversify Internet sources for Vietnamese users.
The Intra-Asia line is scheduled to be fixed in March 2023, APG in April. AAG and AAE-1 have not been scheduled for repairs. That means Vietnamese users are expected to experience Internet delays for at least another month. This is simply unacceptable for a country which 74% of the population needs online connectivity.
APG and AAG are owned by the state’s telecom company. The Vietnamese government has the political and financial leverage to expedite the repair of the faulty cables. It can also accelerate the start of two planned cable lines, the Southeast Asia-Japan 2 (SJC-2) and the Asia Direct Cable (ADC), to add more functioning submarine lines for Vietnamese users. Meanwhile, private ISPs are working with international partners Meta, Tiktok, and Youtube to recover partial Internet capacity.
Meta and Google, in particular, can greatly benefit from investing more submarine cable lines in Southeast Asia. Vietnam is a strong and growing market for these giant tech corporations. The population is extremely tech responsive, with 20 million Vietnamese on Facebook every day and Google dominating 95% of Vietnam’s search engine market share. To take advantage of this growing enthusiasm for social network usage, tech companies should build their own cable service in Vietnam, like Google did in Chile and Meta in Africa.
Because of the vulnerable nature of submarine cable lines, Vietnam needs to diversify its Internet sources. Expanding terrestrial cables provides an alternative solution to the current submarine network.
Vietnam’s terrestrial fiber optic network should model after the Asian Highway Network and the pan-Asian Railway Project. Both infrastructures have been in use for decades and play an instrumental role in connecting Vietnam to its northern and western neighbors. Following the blueprints of these two projects, the terrestrial fiber optic network can open another pathway – this time, digital – between Southeast, East, and South Asia.
Terrabit, a consulting firm on international telecommunications infrastructure, projects that a pan-Asian terrestrial fiber optic network will be a competitive option to submarine cables, offer a more cost-effective connectivity to Internet users, and stimulate economic cooperation in the ASEAN-9 region.
Timely repair and diversification of Internet cable networks are necessary to bring Vietnamese users up to speed with the rest of the world. Improving Internet infrastructure must be a priority. Not only will a diverse and expansive Internet service network be beneficial to the digital economy in Vietnam, it will also set the country to become a regional digital hub in the next decade, a goal ambitiously set by the Ministry of Information and Communications.
About the author:
Bảo Hương, a Vietnamese native, is currently a first-year Master’s candidate in the Foreign Service program at Georgetown University. She focuses on development and sustainability issues in Southeast Asia. Prior to coming to Georgetown, she worked in the clean energy transition sector in San Diego as a policy analyst. Bảo Hương can be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org or linkedin.com/in/huong-vanessa-le/.