Connecting Arabs to the world
It has been a few busy years for Ahmed Mekky, the founder and CEO of Gulf Bridge International (GBI), a company that deploys and manages a network of cables that runs beneath seas and oceans and across land, transmitting telecommunication signals around the globe.
Ahmed Mekky has been working in the telecommunications industry for nearly two decades, but his big break came in 2006 when the idea for a neutral entity servicing the growing needs for connectivity in the region was born. Seated in the lavish modern surroundings of the Gulf Bridge International (GBI) offices at Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), Mekky explains that while working in the industry he identified a gap in the market. A need for an infrastructure that was owned by the region, for the region, to provide the kind of critical infrastructure and capacity that it required.
GBI is the first privately-owned subsea cable system, linking all the Gulf countries together in what is known as a self-healing ring, which is esentially, pairs of cables laid between landing sites, enabling the information to flow both ways, and negating redundancy, and extends eastwards towards Mumbai, India and westwards to Europe. “It was a dream, and now it is a reality,” says Mekky.
“We wanted this cable to be the cable of all the operators, not of any specific operator.”
A privately owned model
Subsea cable companies have traditionally been the product of a consortium of telecom operators who would join together to build the cable infrastructure, serving their needs for connectivity. And if it did happen to be privately owned by a single investor, in most cases it would be a single telecom operator, explains Mekky, one that leads the drive and manages to convince a few of their competitors in other countries to get the landing rights and connect to the cable. In return for an advance commitment and payment, the cable builder sells capacity on the pipeline to the other telecom operators.
Mekky, however, wanted to offer better prices and better quality, and that was where it started. He wanted to develop a network that was truly neutral in identity. “We wanted this cable to be the cable of all the operators, not of any specific operator,” says Mekky. This meant that operators had control over what sort of access they enjoyed on the network and not be beholden to any of their competitors. “This was music to the ears of regulatory authorities because it gives fair access to all the operators in the region,” he says rather excitedly, hoping that their infrastructure will be what the region depends on in the coming years.
The first challenge Mekky faced was raising the capital for his idea. It started with Qatar Foundation, he explains, their commitment and support for the idea in its infancy was what helped GBI. Later they reached out to both local and international financing firms for advice, who then assisted them in drafting a private placement memorandum that would help them raise the initial capital. They were very selective with their potential investors, says Mekky, requiring investors that could not only put up the money but also help maintain the neutral identity of the company and add value now and for the future. It would have been much easier to raise the necessary funds without their added criteria, “but we weren’t thinking this way. We wanted to think about who is going to invest before how much they are going to invest,” he adds.
“What was limiting the growth of usage in the region was a high demand but limited availability, [but] the pipe is now open.”
Today the company’s investors include the Qatar Investment Authority and the Kuwait Investment Authority. “We have all the flags of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the board of GBI,” Mekky says proudly. “This is one of the things that really makes GBI unique, for this is the first time these firms have cooperated together on a big project like this,” suggesting it as a model to be repeated in future projects in different sectors.
Raising the necessary financing was only Mekky’s first hurdle, there were a lot of technical challenges in implementing the subsea cable system, he admits. “The shallow waters of the Gulf, the number of pipelines that we needed to cross, we needed to have a crossing agreement with every owner of every pipeline. Also, getting the landing rights (for the cabling to be received onshore) in all of these countries, too, required permits and authorisations.” But his biggest challenge, he points out, was the lack of a unified approach to dealing with the permissions different regions required. Every country had its own system and regulations that they had to respect. This meant managing the requirements individually.
“This is why,” he continues, “managing to deliver this network in less than three years’ time is something unheard of in the industry, with all of these challenges. It normally takes at least double the amount of time to deploy a network like this considering all that I have mentioned, plus the changes to the political map over the last few years, as well as the financial crunch, which the whole world has been suffering from.” Delivering this network in less than three years is a miracle in itself, he furthers.
Adapting to trends
The rate of data transfer in the Middle East is seeing exponential increases every year, Mekky says it is roughly doubling nearly every year. Considering the demand, his vision for the company was to commit to implementing the latest technology in the region to be able to handle the rising volume of data traffic. Having various GCC countries represented on the board of GBI assured that this mandate was carried out, since it could have a positive impact on their economies. When GBI first started implementing their technology, what was available was the 10 GbE connection, says Mekky, but they built the network to be scalable for any new technology that may come around. “We were the first to deploy the 40 GbE technology in the region and we are the first in the world to deploy the 100 GbE technology,” he furthers. (GbE, or gigabit ethernet, is a unit of capacity that can travel through fibre optic cables.)
100 GbE - The highest capacity of the fibre optic network provided by GBI. They are also the first in the world to deploy this technology.
With the new advances implemented, the company can now offer a capacity that had never been available before, Mekky points out, and since GBI has linked all the countries in the region, they can enjoy the growth of demand with no limit to availability of capacity or access. “What was limiting the growth of usage in the region was a high demand but the availability was limited, with this the pipe is open,” he says.
Expanding the network
The GBI subsea cables land in all of the countries around the Gulf, and are designed in a loop to provide the ‘self-healing ring’ in the event of any cable cuts or if a part of the cable is damaged. The traffic would ‘self-heal’ by being rerouted to other directions until the ship comes and fixes it, says Mekky. Their network also stretches eastwards to India, with a landing site in Mumbai and westward, a connection that goes around the Arabian Peninsula into the Red Sea and the Mediterranean to land in Italy connecting it to Europe.
Mekky goes on to say that while not in their initial plans, as part of their mandate to provide both the best technology and access, they extended their network into Europe. All the subsea cables for this route were laid out by GBI, and the terrestrial part of the route was completed by acquiring cables as opposed to latching onto other networks in Europe. This allows them to offer clients end-to-end connectivity without going on to other networks. “If the destinations are beyond this [their current network], we are also able to secure for our client, through partnerships with other operators to provide our client end-to-end connectivity,” he explains.
GBI’s advancement into Europe is only the beginning, according to Mekky, “There are other areas of expansion that we are looking at,” he says as he leans forward from his seat to reveal the company’s latest triumph. In March 2013, GBI announced the new route that Mekky claims will change the dynamics of the telecom market of the region. The new route is a connection between Asia and Europe that travels from the Middle East to Iraq through to Turkey and then all the way to Frankfurt.
“With a diversity of loops, this will create a beautiful network because this is the first in history that has this kind of access, this kind of diversity all over the region,” he says animatedly.
Thanks to securing agreements with all of the partners here and the authorities in Iraq and Turkey, there is a lot of demand for this route, he confirms, since the latency is much less because the distance is shorter.
“Previously, if there was a cable cut in the Mediterranean, then none of the traffic could get to the Gulf, or if a cable was cut in the Indian Ocean it would not be able to get to the Gulf.”
“I am calling it the silk route,” he says, “it will carry a lot of traffic between Asia and Europe, and vice versa.” The company’s network is not only advantageous to the Middle East but also Indian operators who wish to access Europe. Mekky reveals that GBI had signed commercial deals with customers before the route was even completed because they understood the importance and value of the route.
Another major advantage the new GBI route offers the Middle East is protection against Internet disruptions, like the one experienced in 2008 when undersea cables were damaged. “One of the things,” explains Mekky, “was that if there was a cable cut in the Mediterranean, then none of the traffic could get to the Gulf, or if a cable was cut in the Indian Ocean, it would not be able to get to the Gulf.” With the recently announced route, the Gulf is no longer at risk of being isolated and operators in Qatar, Kuwait and other countries around the Gulf today have the luxury of diversity.
When asked what he sees in the future for GBI, Mekky adds that in conversations within the organisation, they have agreed that what has
been accomplished so far is not the end. “This is the start of the journey actually,” he says.