Africa’s internet vulnerability and how to fix it


Africa recently experienced a major internet outage, affecting several countries. This is the third disruption in four months, highlighting how fragile internet service can be on the continent. The outage was caused by damage to two undersea cables that carry data around Africa. This problem started early on Sunday morning and has led to many questions about how to make the internet more reliable in Africa.

In March, four undersea cables off the West African coast were damaged, causing similar issues. In February, cables in the Red Sea were damaged when the anchor of a ship dragged through them. The most recent incident is still being investigated, but it is likely that a ship’s anchor caused the damage. This is according to Prenesh Padayachee, the chief digital and operations officer at Seacom, which owns one of the cables affected. The second cable, known as Eassy, was damaged at the same time and place.

The damage occurred off the South African coast, near the port city of Durban. The Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) reported this location. The infrastructure connecting Africa to the rest of the world has improved in recent years. Telecom companies are using other cables to maintain service. For example, in Kenya, the CAK said that local internet traffic was currently using The East Africa Marine System (Teams) cable, which was not affected by the outage. However, not all countries have alternatives. Tanzania, for instance, saw its connectivity drop to 30% of the expected level.

When there are only a few pathways for data to travel, the internet can get jammed and slow down. More connections have been made in recent years, which means more cables, but also more chances for damage. These cables are like garden hoses stretching 10,000 km and are quite fragile. Dr. Jess Auerbach Jahajeeah, a researcher in digital connectivity at the University of Cape Town, explained this to the BBC’s Focus on Africa program.

One of the most common causes of cable damage is anchor dragging from ships close to shore. Underwater rockfalls and seismic activity can also damage cables. Since many subsea cables are close to each other, one incident on the ocean floor or one ship can damage multiple cables at the same time. Industry expert Ben Roberts pointed this out. Repairing these cables requires specialized equipment and expertise and can take days or weeks, depending on the weather, sea conditions, and the extent of the problem. For example, it took more than a month to repair and return four severed West African internet cables to service.

“We are working on a temporary capacity solution to ensure connectivity is reinstated to the affected regions,” said Mr. Padayachee from Seacom. He added that they were “actively collaborating with various parties to expedite the repair process.” A cable repair ship, the Léon Thévenin, which had been docked in Cape Town, is being sent to the site of the damage and should arrive in three days. Chris Wood, who runs a company that has invested in Eassy, provided this information.

Despite an increase in connections, Africa’s reliance on a limited number of undersea cables for the internet makes the continent more susceptible to disruptions and exacerbates their impact. Europe and North America have a dense network of high-capacity overland and undersea cables that diversify connectivity routes and improve resilience. Discussions have been ongoing to address Africa’s internet infrastructure challenges, but progress has been slow because of logistical and financial constraints.

Dr. Jahajeeah mentioned that the support systems to repair the growing number of cables around the continent have not kept up with the growth. While other ships can help, the Léon Thévenin is the only repair ship dedicated to servicing Africa. “The ship used to do two or three repairs a year. Last year it did nine… and there is a real need for African governments and global governments to get together and say we need to ensure that there is no digital divide,” Dr. Jahajeeah said.

Some people have proposed alternatives such as satellite internet links to bolster digital resilience. Elon Musk’s Starlink project, for example, aims to provide high-speed internet to people in remote areas via a network of satellites. However, it is very expensive and currently not available everywhere. The real answer lies in greater investment on the ground to support the vital communications infrastructure.

“We need more networks, more connectivity, more data centers, and more internet exchanges to make sure that we have diverse connectivity,” said Mr. Roberts.

In summary, Africa’s internet outages highlight the vulnerability of the continent’s internet infrastructure. With only a few undersea cables connecting the continent to the rest of the world, any damage can lead to significant disruptions. While efforts are being made to improve the situation, such as using alternative cables and considering satellite internet, there is a pressing need for more investment in infrastructure. This includes more networks, data centers, and internet exchanges to ensure that Africa has diverse and resilient connectivity.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Enable Google Transliteration.(To type in English, press Ctrl+g)