Rebels and Arab coalition forces in Yemen are currently under a ceasefire agreement, but violent clashes between the groups have left much of the country in great disrepair. Along with architectural and municipal infrastructure, the conflict has had a disastrous impact on communication technologies in the country. Cuts in electricity and telecommunications services have become commonplace, and some fear that communication infrastructure in the country could begin to collapse altogether, leaving Yemenis literally cut off from the global Internet.
Arab coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia began pounding Yemen with airstrikes on March 26. More than 1400 people, mostly civilians, were killed in 7 weeks. Their assault has gone far beyond military sites and the main target of the campaign, the tribal militia Houthis, who took control of Yemen's capital Sana'a in January. There is also massive destruction in the southern port city of Aden, where the Houthis have been retaliating along with militias loyal to Yemen's former president, Ali Abdulla Saleh, who was forced to step down after three decades in power, following popular protests in 2011.
Power plants and both fixed line and mobile telecommunications networks are out of service in many cities in Yemen, with more joining the list everyday. Engineers are not able to reach stations to maintain them and put them back in operation. The country is also being forced to ration oil, on which power plants and telecommunications stations operate. In many areas, this has meant cutting all telecommunication services, including the Internet.
Even before this conflict, Yemen had a weak infrastructure in both telecommunications and energy sectors. Oil pipelines, power plants and fiber optic cables have long suffered repeated attacks by armed and tribal groups over the past years.
Yemenis fear that they will soon face longer periods of electricity and telecommunications cuts. In some areas, these have already stretched as long as four weeks at a time. If this happens, it could leave millions of Yemenis cut off from the rest of the world in a situation where offenses on civilians are continuously increasing. An Internet activist who preferred to remain anonymous told us:
نحن قلقون بأننا لن نتمكن من نشر وتوثيق انتهاكات حقوق الإنسان والوضع الإنساني الصعب بشكل مباشر على الإنترنت خلال الأيام القليلة القادمة، لا إنترنت، لا اتصالات، حتى هواتفنا المحمولة لن نستطيع استخدامها لعدم توفر الطاقة الكهربائية.
We are worried that we will not be able to document and publish human rights violations and the difficult humanitarian situation live on the internet in the coming few days. No internet, no telecommunications, even our mobile phones will become useless, we will not be able to use them if there is no electricity.
Social media has become a very important tool for international media outlets that could not stay in Yemen to cover the events there. They have instead come to depend on local activists who film and publish videos and reports of what they are seeing and hearing on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.
According to officials at telecommunication companies, phone and internet traffic has dropped by over 30 percent. Other sources also confirmed that the number of peak time internet users has dropped by over 60 percent in the past few days compared to previous months. These numbers continue to grow as the current situation heads to the worst.
Dr. Ali Nosary, the Chief Executive Officer of TeleYemen, expects that Internet and telecommunications sector will face great disturbance in the coming few days. He says:
مع استمرار الوضع الحالي وانعدام المشتقات النفطية لفترة أطول ربما لن تتمكن معظم شبكات الاتصالات من العمل لأكثر من بضعة أيام وليس أسابيع.
If the current situation and the lack of oil continue for longer maybe the majority of telecommunications networks will not last few days, let alone weeks.
TeleYemen offers internet services via satellites but the service prices are very high ($600-$1400 to set up, $48 for 5GB and $1110 for 100GB). Clearly only a limited number of users can benefit from it. The number does not exceed 1,000 subscribers, the majority of which are employees of private companies and banks.
As the owner of YemenNet and TeleYemen, are both subsidiaries of the government's Public Telecommunications Company, the Yemeni government has a monopoly on fixed line telecommunications services in the country. This arrangement has held the Yemen back from developing a more robust telecommunications sector, leaving it to rely on fragile infrastructure that depends on copper cables and old infrastructure which was made for voice, not data communications.
As for mobile services, three of the four operating companies work on GSM, offering 2G technology. The fourth which is a public company, with the government as a share holder, works on CDMA, offering very limited 3G internet service in some areas.
Despite the accelerated growth in the numbers of internet users in Yemen, the percentage is still too low compared to neighboring countries. Various reports state that the percentage of Internet users in Yemen fluctuate between 14 and 20 percent.Thus one can see that digital isolation is a not-so-remote possibility.
In the face of a disastrous humanitarian situation, widespread poverty, and persisting armed conflict, isolation from the Internet could be disastrous. The Internet is a crucial tool for journalists who work on reporting conflicts, and for activists who spread the news and document human rights violations and the overall humanitarian situation, and for regular people to know what's happening on the ground and communicate with loved ones outside of the country.