How fragile is the internet in Africa?

In the past few months, internet and international telephone services were significantly disrupted across many African nations due to sub-sea cable damage. In any typical year, around 100 incidents are reported globally, and normally affect one cable at a time. Two separate events just weeks apart caused the loss of multiple cables on both sides of the African continent. Damage to a single cable will often go unnoticed as cable operators have agreements in place to reroute traffic. So, why did the internet fail in Africa?

In this article, I will explain what happened and explore some actions aid organisations can take to mitigate against future events.

24th February 2024:: Three cables were cut in the Red Sea (Seacom/TGN-EA, EIG, and AAE-1). The initial speculation stated that the cuts were carried out deliberately by the same rebels who are targeting shipping in the Red Sea in support of the Gaza war. This theory was soon disregarded in favour of a more likely cause which is assumed to be the anchor the crew of the MV Rubymar deployed following a missile attack. The ship eventually sank. The outage of the three cables caused major disruption to internet services across the East and Southern African region. Services started to improve in the following days as ISPs worked together to re-route traffic via alternative cable.

14th March 2024: Four cables were damaged off the west coast near to Abidjan. This time an underwater
rockslide was suspected to have caused damage. Services in West and Central
Africa were severely disrupted. Whilst mobile networks continued to operate for
local and national calls, the ability to make international calls and use data
ceased.

Resilience and recovery: In a report published by the internet society in April 2024. The organisation covered the events in detail and explained that timelines for repairing cables ranging from 4 to 6 weeks. The Infrapedia map is a global map showing sea cable routes. In the screenshot below, the cable routes for West Africa are clearly shown.

Returning to the question from the top of this article “why was Africa severely impacted”, this map demonstrates two factors contributing to the high risk of losing connectivity.

  • Low number of sea cables serving African countries. Some countries more resilient than others. Liberia has just one cable, but Nigeria is in a stronger position with 7 cables.
  • Multiple cables routed through the same place will heighten the risk of major disruption as a single event can damage multiple cales at the same time.

Multiple cable damage is exactly what happened in the Red Sea and the Atlantic. West Africa was more severely affected due to the low volume of cables in the area.

What can organisations do to reduced the impact of a connectivity outage? When a major outage happens, both internet access and ability to make international calls will be lost. This also affects mobile networks as well as fibre connections. As these events are completely outside the control of aid agencies, there is not much IT teams can do other than to monitor the situation and inform staff.

There are some actions organisations can take to reduce the impact when connectivity is lost. It is possible in many nations to implement back up services which can be activated during an outage. Here are a few suggestions.

  • VSAT – This is satellite-based internet. Bandwidth will not perform to the same level as a fibre connection, but it will allow organisations to perform essential online tasks. VSAT is technology that organisations need to buy in advance and have contracts in place which enables services to be switched on at short notice.

    VSAT relies on ground stations to link satellites to the internet. If the ground station is in the same or nearby country where the internet has failed, VSAT will not work. When sourcing VSAT services, its best to select services where ground stations are in Europe and other locations with a high density of internet infrastructure.

    There are some countries where internet is strictly regulated, and ISPs are required to use ground stations in the same country. In these circumstances, VSAT will not be an appropriate solution.
  • Portable Satellite Communications – Satellite telephones can be held in reserve to allow internal calls to be made. Inmarsat BGAN and Thuraya IP are compact units (small notebook size) which can be used to access the internet. Inmarsat and Thuraya satellites connect to the internet via ground stations in the EU, USA, UEA and other global north locations. This technology has a reputation for being expensive, but in recent years, affordable packages have become available. (BGAN Link provides 30GB of data for around $1000 per month).BGAN and Thuraya IP operates at around 350Kb/Sec, which is nowhere near fibre speed but sufficient for a small team to carry out essential work.
  • StarLink – During the outages of February and March 2024, many NGO leaders were calling for StarLink to be sourced. StarLink has a high profile in the media as it has been strongly promoted by Elon Musk its CEO. This new technology delivers internet at high speed and low cost.

    At the moment StarLink can only add limited value in Africa as it can only be used in Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Mozambique and Malawi. More countries are working through legal agreements with other countries, so this list will expand.

    Based on my research, there is only one StarLink ground station in Nigeria. As this was one of the countries affected by the outage, it was assumed that the StarLink services may have also been affected by the cable cut. During a recent conversation with StarLink, the sales team told me that StarLink performed as normal during the recent outages, but I have not been able to independently verify this statement.

    One of the reasons that StarLink may have performed well maybe down to the way data can be transferred between satellites via 100GB/Sec laser links. As StarLink is new to Africa, it’s feasible that performance may have been good, but how well would the StarLink network perform during a major cable cut in the future when there are significantly more users accessing StarLink?
     
  • ISPs: What can your internet supplier do to keep services running during a cable cut?  IT and Procurement teams should ask more technical questions about how the services are provided. Is it possible for supplier to have back up connections to keep limited services running when sea cables are cut. As an example, ISPs in Liberia used to rely on large VSAT systems to provide internet services. When Liberia was connected to the ACE cable in 2012, many ISPs retained their VSAT systems as a backstop.

    Specific question to ask ISPs;

    • How many sea cables do your supplier by internet services from? In some of the recent outages, some ISPs performed better than others as they were able to move traffic quickly down the remaining operational routes.

      Does the supplier operate an independent VSAT back up?  If so, what is the capacity and where is the ground station?
    • In the event of a major cable incident, what service levels can the supplier guarantee via its back up infrastructure?

Conclusion: Most organisations rely upon internet-based services for running daily tasks from managing HR to running procurement. When the internet goes offline, this has a significant impact on operations. As recent events have demonstrated, total loss of internet access is a possibility and more likely in places where cable density is low.Sea-Cables are vulnerable to damage from ships, trawlers, and seismic events. It is also important to understand that the risk of damage to infrastructure by bad actors is possible. In 2022, it was suspected that the Nordstream gas pipeline in the Baltic sea was sabotaged by bad actors. Some nation states have made it clear that they consider sea cables as a legitimate target during a war.

So, organisations need to take the risk of internet outages seriously, especially in locations where sea cables are limited to low numbers. This risk of outages need to be mitigated by investment in back up connections such as satellite-based solutions. VSAT is possibly the most solid option, but new LEO technologies like StarLink will have an increasing role to play in the future.