Out of the five subsea cables that connect Vietnam with the rest of the globe, the SMW-3 has been around the longest. Expecting to be decommissioned in 2024, the soon-to-retire cable is now the only fully operational pathway that holds Vietnam’s international internet connection together for 70 million users.
This is the second time in the last 24 years of operation that the SMW-3 has found itself in the same situation. The first time was in 2007, when one of Vietnam’s two cables at the time was surreptitiously sabotaged. And this time, four out of the five available cables encountered issues all at once.
The problem is not solely because the cables are not working properly. It's also because of the sheer number of internet users and their ever-rising demands for internet access. Some 16 years ago, there were only around 17.7 million internet users in Vietnam. Today, that number has already quadrupled.
Over the past three months, the four cables have encountered issues one after another, partially or fully disabling internet connections running through them.
The first one to have trouble was the AAE-1, which lost the data flow en-route towards Hong Kong on November 24 last year. Seventeen days later, the AAG completely lost all signals.
The APG, the cable carrying the most bandwidths, lost signals running towards Malaysia and Singapore on January 21. A week after, the IA lost its connection with Singapore.
No matter what happens, the SMW-3 will be abandoned after 25 years of operation as planned.
"Poor old SMW3 ([Ready For Service in 1999], about to be decommissioned) is bearing [Vietnam's] international traffic alone," Twitter account philBE, which described itself as an observer of global submarine cable systems developments, tweeted on February 3.
Vu Nhat An, the tech director of a startup based in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan District, said that if the SMW-3 had entered operation just a year sooner, Vietnam would "probably have no undersea cables left right now."
"I have never been as frustrated with our internet connection as I am today," said An, adding that he has been dealing with sluggish and unstable internet access for the last two months.
An’s company is currently using four internet connection routes, but the team could never achieve peak efficiency with such a fickle internet network. Even the most basic things, like using Google Docs, sometimes fail. When he gets home, An switches off Wi-Fi and turns to his 4G connection instead.
As someone who manages a digital platform with over 3 million monthly visitors, An said more and more people have been complaining to the platform’s customer service over the past month.
"Some people did not know that the slow internet was because of damaged cables," he said. "They thought that the website was faulty, and so they filed complaints."
Internet users like An, which account for two-thirds of Vietnam's total population, now have to compete with one another over an ever-shrinking internet bandwidth. A VnExpress survey from January 30 to February 6 of over 13,900 respondents revealed that 95% of them reported slower internet connections than usual.
The fact that Vietnam has around 70,000 businesses dealing with digital technologies, along with another million companies utilizing technologies for their daily operations, means that internet access has evolved from being a luxury to being a necessity. Any internet issues would therefore cause consequences that businesses have to deal with themselves.
Yet no one has ever brought up the question of who should be held accountable for such consequences.
The Vietnam Internet Association said that internet connections to the outside world "might need to take longer trips" now that several cables have been damaged.
"The quality of internet connections for the next few weeks will be unstable and slow for certain services," said Vu The Binh, general secretary of the association. "Internet service providers will need time to compensate for the lost data, as well as to reroute connections, which would result in slower internet access."
A thin thread
During its heyday, Vietnam's internet speed was a bright spot on the global internet map. Speedtest recorded Vietnam's fixed broadband internet speed to be at 82 Mb/s back in December last year, which ranked 46th among 180 countries and territories. The country's mobile internet speed was at 42 Mb/s, placing it at No. 51.
The problem with Vietnam's internet connection has nothing to do with its actual capabilities. The problem is its insufficient capacity to respond and adapt to emergency situations.
There are three ways through which Vietnam's internet network connects with the rest of the world: subsea cables, land cables and satellites. Among them, subsea cables have always been the lifeblood of international internet connections, accounting for 99% of inter-continental data flows. Land cables are usually reserved for people with high demands for internet access, who pay to utilize them for their own purposes. Satellite internet is only used for very remote areas where cables cannot easily reach.
Vietnam knows the significant role that its internet infrastructure plays in the country's development. So for the past three decades, the country has worked tirelessly to increase the number of cables and the amount of bandwidth in order to meet the needs of the growing number of internet users.
But the cables, despite all the protective layers they could wear, could not withstand all the hardships underneath the sea.
The South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, is one of the most active sea regions for maritime activities in the world. Subsea cables, even with all their steel reinforcements, are no match for anchors tolled by vessels that weigh dozens of thousands of tons.
Statistics from the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) revealed that from 1959 to 2021, 41% of cases where cables were damaged resulted from fishing activities, 16% were due to anchors, and 0.1% were due to marine creatures.
By early 2023, the world had 552 cables which are either already operating or about to. Every year, this cable network encounters around 100 issues, according to telecommunications market research company TeleGeography. Another report by state-owned Viettel said that Vietnam's subsea cables encounter issues around 10 times a year on average.
It means that with five cables currently available, Vietnam utilizes only 1% of all the cables on the globe, yet the issues they encounter account for 10% of all cable issues in the world.
A representative from military-run telecom giant Viettel said that one possible explanation for why Vietnam's cables encounter so many issues is because the water at the country's southeastern sea region is too shallow, and there are many vessels operating in areas where the cables are installed.
These cables are easy to damage and hard to fix due to the fact that Vietnam's internet service providers cannot play an active role in the reparation process. It's been three months since the first cable encountered problems, yet reparation has only been scheduled for two cables, either in March or April. As for the other two damaged cables, no reparation schedule has been planned.
All five of Vietnam's cables belong to consortiums, which are managed by several countries and telecommunications firms. These cables all span wide areas of the ocean, meaning fixing them cannot be done in a short time, and the reparation process is out of Vietnam's control. There is practically nothing that Vietnam 's internet service providers can do to speed up this process.
Viettel said that with the frequency of issues happening 10 times a year on average, along with the fact that each issue would take around a month to fix, service providers are often only able to make use of three cables at a time at most. That means service providers always have to maintain backup internet connection routes, leading to cost inefficiency and a greater operational burden. This is considered one of the biggest thorns in the side of Vietnam's subsea cable network at the moment.
"There is not enough subsea cable infrastructure right now," a representative of a major Vietnamese internet service provider admitted, adding that when problems occur, businesses would often rely on land cable networks that connect Vietnam’s northern and southwestern regions. As this network is usually reserved for private channels and 3G and 4G connections, several users often report better internet service quality on their mobile phones.
For over two decades now, Vietnam has been devising multiple solutions to upgrade its internet infrastructure amid an exponentially growing internet user population, from 1.9 million users in 2002 to 72.1 million today. That's a 38-fold increase and a number that Vietnam's cables have yet to keep up with.
If the two subsea cables that have yet to officially be put into operation, the ADC and the SJC2, are added to the mix, Vietnam would have seven cables in total to connect itself to the world. But that number still pales to many other countries, for example, Singapore's 39 cables, Malaysia's 25 cables, the Philippines' 24 cables and Thailand's 13 cables. Meanwhile, the number of internet users in Vietnam is several times higher than that of these countries.
Vietnam's demand for international internet access is projected to rise by 30%-50% a year, several telecommunications firms like Huawei, Cisco and Viettel forecasted. In order to meet such demand, the country's international internet connections would need to be expanded by 10-40 times more than they are now.
With subsea cables encountering issues so frequently, Vietnam will need to add and diversify its cable network for international connections by increasing the number of cables, their branches and their hubs in order to afford more stability, said Binh of Vietnam Internet Association.
Marvin Tan, an analyst from TeleGeography, said Vietnam is one of the largest internet markets in Asia and one that is growing quickly. However, the ADC and SJC2 cables will only be ready for service by the end of 2023 and 2024 respectively, he added.
"Vietnam really needs these new cables to come online," said Tan.
As part of its ongoing agenda to upgrade all governmental, economic and social infrastructure on digital platforms, the Ministry of Information and Communications aims to make Vietnam's telecommunications infrastructure match the rest of the world. Internet service providers meanwhile plan to install new hubs in Quy Nhon, which the ADC and SJC2 cables would eventually be connected to.
Viettel said its international data flow currently amounts to 8.1 Tbps, and with another 700 Gbps recently added, for a total of 8.9 Tbps. Once the ADC enters operation in the third quarter, the service provider will be able to make use of 18 Tbps worth of data running through the cable, tripling its current bandwidth.
State-owned VNPT meanwhile contributed to the creation of the SJC2 cable, which will have a data flow of 18 Tbps and which is expected to enter operation in 2024. By 2030, both Viettel and VNPT are expected to be able to utilize 2-4 new subsea cables.
Hubert Souisa, an independent consultant on infrastructure from the Netherlands, recommended that for the next five years, Vietnam will need to identify why outages occur in order to mitigate the circumstances, while also developing alternate subsea paths.
Tan said consortium cables can be beneficial as "more cable owners from other countries are affected and are therefore incentivized to share the costs of cable repairs and help to assist with permits for deployment and maintenance, which can expedite and quicken the process of cable repairs."
But for users like Nhat An, after suffering two months of slow internet hell, they have been used to switching back and forth between different ways to connect to the internet, and also learning not to use the internet when they don't need to.
However, that cannot last forever, An said.
"I don't care how many subsea cables we have," he said. "What we want is a stable connection."
Luu Quy, Thu Hang
*Data was collected from TeleGeography, Viettel, Ookla, Kepios, and Vietnam's Information and Communications Technology Whitebook.