It may now take up to 27 days to repair a faulty Internet submarine cable system in Malaysia according to the former Transport Minister, Anthony Loke in Dewan Rakyat yesterday.
A submarine cable carries telecommunication signals (including Internet & telephone) across ocean and sea, connecting countries around the world to the Internet. This cable is laid on the sea bed between land-based stations.
Last year, the then Malaysian government decided to exempt foreign vessels repairing undersea cables at any cable landing station in Malaysian waters from its cabotage policy. The work to repair submarine cables needs the services of a special vessel, namely dynamic position two (DP2)-type cable laying ship, of which very few are available in Malaysia. The cabotage exemption came into force on 1 April 2019 through the exercise of the powers conferred by Section 65U of the Merchant Shipping Ordinance 1952, pursuant to the Federal Government Gazette on 28 March 2019.
Anthony Loke, who approved the exemption back in March 2019, helped speed up repairs of submarine cables, including those owned by Telekom Malaysia and Time dotCom, that may damage from time to time, causing internet disruption across the country. The decision was made because no Malaysian vessel had the ability to perform the submarine cable repair tasks swiftly.
However, the current Transport Minister, Wee Ka Siong, had on November 13, signed a federal gazette revoking (link) the cabotage exemption to foreign ships involved in the repair of submarine cables, which connects Malaysia to the global internet network.
Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Malaysia Internet Exchange (MyIX), in a memorandum to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, dated November 20, said Wee’s decision would have adverse impact on Malaysia’s economy.
According to the accompanying letter sighted by Malaysiakini, the global tech giants cautioned that Wee’s decision will result in increased repair times for submarine cables, thereby hurting Malaysia’s internet stability.
“At a time when millions of Malaysians are dependent on the internet for their livelihoods, the restoration of submarine Internet infrastructure representing investments of billions of ringgit is being unnecessarily delayed every time a repair needs to be carried out,” it said.
Describing Wee’s decision as “abrupt”, they expressed serious concerns that there was no meaningful stakeholder consultation with foreign investors and owners of submarine cables.
“It does not project regulatory stability or a policy environment that is conducive to foreign investment,” the tech giants said.
They added that the decision would create a monopoly for only one local shipping company, Optic Marine Group, which only has one cable laying vessel in Malaysia.
The end of the cabotage exemption means foreign vessels that intend to participate in the repair of submarine cables in Malaysia must once again apply for domestic shipping licensing exemption (DSLE). Prior to April 2019, the average submarine cable repair time in Malaysia is 27 days, compared to 20 days in the Philippines, 19 days in Singapore and only 12 days in Vietnam.
“This makes Malaysia less favourable than Singapore for submarine cables to land, despite the shorter distance compared to Singapore,” said Facebook, Google, Microsoft and MyIX.
In response to Anthony Loke in Dewan Rakyat yesterday, Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong said that Internet traffic from damaged submarine cables could be re-routed to any of the 21 undersea cables in the country and that opportunities needed to be given to local companies under the Malaysia Shipowners’ Association (MASA). He is also confident that undersea cable repair works could potentially be shortened by up to 10 days using local companies compared with 27 days previously.
This prompted former Minister of Multimedia and Communications, Gobind Singh Deo to say there was a lack of undersea cable repair experts in the country. He told Wee: “If you think rerouting is a solution to the problem then you do not understand the problem at all.”
Wee Ka Siong responded and said the decision was not unilateral and was decided jointly by his ministry and the communications and multimedia ministry, and “stakeholders”.
“To me, we give an opportunity to MASA, if within a certain period they do not have the expertise, we open it up,” he said.
Earlier this year, multiple faults were detected in submarine cable systems linked to Telekom Malaysia (TM). For one of the submarine cable system, Asia Pacific Cable Network 2 (APCN2), TM said the affected cable provides international connectivity to many internet-based services such as video conferencing, gaming and Virtual Private Network (VPN) hosted in Hong Kong and the U.S. which may cause some degree of service degradation for internet users of these services in Malaysia and in the region. In April 2020, TM also apologised for its Internet service degradation, which lasted around 3 days due to maintenance work on the Asia-America Gateway (AAG) submarine cable network.