“There are really just two submarine cable landing points in Yemen (Aden and Hodeidah), but each one is on a different side of the conflict.”
Yemen's internet outage reveals power Sana'a still wields over Aden, Marib
Nearly a month after a fiber-optic cable on the seabed of the Suez Canal was cut, knocking out 80 percent of Yemen’s internet connection, the war torn country is slowly emerging from the digital blackout and taking stock of the economic damage.
Yemen’s dominant telecom TeleYemen, controlled by the Houthis in Sana’a, announced that the so-called Falcon cable wouldn’t be repaired until late February. In the meantime, state-owned TeleYemen said it would provide “temporary emergency capacities.”
A few days later, one of those backup providers, Cogent, unexpectedly went offline. The Houthis accused Yemen’s internationally recognized government in Aden of severing the connection.
Regardless of the causes of the severed connections, the outage has paralyzed banks, money exchange shops and critical business functions across Yemen, compounding economic problems spawned by the war and creating new ones.
While Yemen is by and large a cash-based economy, access to and movement of that cash depends heavily on ATMs and money exchange shops.
Remittances, which act as a lifeline for populations throughout Yemen, particularly in besieged cities like Taiz, were suspended as financial companies were unable to transmit or verify electronic transactions.
Osama Mohammed opened an internet cafe in Sana’a after the government stopped paying his salary as a school teacher in late 2016.
“Electricity, fuel, internet, salaries, everything is cut off,” he said. “The only things that do not stop are death and the armed thieves who come to us in the name of the state every day.”
Some exchange shops managed to use expensive 3G internet on their smartphones to complete transactions, but the mobile web connection slowed to a crawl as waves of customers logged on and overwhelmed its limited capacity.
The unprecedented outage has exposed how vulnerable Yemen’s fragile internet infrastructure – providing the slowest internet connection in the world in normal times – is to large scale disruptions.
Yemen’s population of about 30 million is largely connected to the internet by four submarine cables landing at three port cities: Al-Ghaydah on the Arabian Sea near Yemen’s eastern border with Oman, Aden on the Gulf of Aden and Hodeidah on the Red Sea.
Geographical fragmentation in the five year civil war has further weakened the resilience of Yemen’s tenuous internet connection.
“There are really just two submarine cable landing points in Yemen (Aden and Hodeidah), but each one is on a different side of the conflict,” said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Oracle Internet Intelligence. “If used together, they would probably provide enough resiliency for the internet of Yemen. But right now they are not due to the partition.”
Yemen’s internationally recognized government, based in the southern port city of Aden since 2016, launched its own ISP called AdenNet in 2018 to gain independence from Yemen’s dominant, Houthi-controlled internet service provider (ISP), YemenNet, based in Sana’a. It was a forward-looking move, given that AdenNet wasn’t affected by the damaged Falcon cable in January.
But the YemenNet outage exposed how underdeveloped AdenNet remains nearly a year-and-a-half after its launch. AdenNet’s 4G coverage is confined to the small port city and has limited capacity or support for further growth. Indeed, the vast majority of Yemenis living in areas outside Houthi control still rely on Sana’a-based YemenNet due to the lack of other services.
In the immediate aftermath of YemenNet’s outage, the unexpected surge in demand for AdenNet modems revealed a thriving black market.
Prices rose to “fictional” levels, according to Omar Muhammad, with some devices selling for more than $500.
In Marib city, a government-controlled urban center about 170 kilometers east of Sana’a, local businessmen have tried to establish independence from Sana’a-based telecoms by developing satellite internet service.
Like AdenNet, Marib’s satellite bandwidth was overwhelmed by the rush of YemenNet customers seeking a connection during the outage. Among them are the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who have fled war in Houthi-controlled areas to cities like Marib in search of work to send money back to their villages. During the outage, however, even those with satellite internet could not send money home, according to Mohammad Yazan, who works for a prominent money exchange company in Marib, because most banks and money exchange shops are headquartered in Sana’a, where the sole internet provider, YemenNet, was offline.
The internet outage has also exacerbated the fallout from a currency war being waged between the Aden and Sana’a branches of the Central Bank of Yemen. In December, Houthi authorities alerted merchants, money changers, banks and citizens in rebel-controlled areas that of a 30-day deadline to hand over newly-minted banknotes issued by the central bank’s government-controlled branch in Aden. The ban made it more expensive for Yemenis in cities like Marib or Aden to send remittances to areas under Houthi control because the value of the new banknotes dropped as their supply increased. The internet blackout added another barrier to sending remittances.
The outage also raised questions about the viability of an electronic currency initiative the Houthis have launched in an effort to establish a monetary system independent of the internationally recognized government. Without reliable internet, the e-riyal system won’t work.
Yemen’s internet outage comes amid a fight for web access in Houthi-controlled areas.
In an effort to increase revenue, YemenNet raised subscription prices by as much as 130 percent in September.
In the wake of public criticism for the price hikes, Houthi-appointed Minister of Telecommunications and Information Technology Musfer Al-Numair held a press conference to criticize the use of internet in the country.
Claiming to have visited more than five foreign countries where people use the internet only to send emails and communicate with each other, Al-Numair said Yemenis, by contrast, overuse the web.
Some countries only allow citizens to use the internet after undergoing training “so as not to harm others, not violate the privacy of others and not publish anything harmful,” Al-Numair said, suggesting that Yemenis could benefit from such training.
"Our women learn from the internet and our children learn from the internet and we learn from the internet, and all of this has very negative consequences," he added.
The minister proposed the need for Yemeni consumers to ration internet consumption like they do water and electricity, he said, declaring that “a huge misuse of the internet between 2 p.m. and 2 a.m.," when most Yemenis are online.
Al-Numair’s remarks evoked a flurry of criticism and sarcastic remarks from technology activists on social media, who said the minister isn’t qualified for his job and his statements were simply an attempt to paper over the raising of internet prices.