SA at serious risk of catastrophic internet disruption

25 August 2023

Paul Colmer, EXCO member, Wireless Access Provider’s Association (WAPA)

Paul Colmer, EXCO member, Wireless Access Provider’s Association (WAPA)

In an era driven by digital connectivity, the recent events involving the unprecedented damage to three of South Africa’s major west coast undersea internet cables have thrust the country into a precarious position.

The disruption of critical undersea cables, Western African Cable System (WACS), South Atlantic 3 (SAT-3), and now African Coast to Europe (ACE), has highlighted the vulnerability of the country's internet infrastructure and exposed potential risks that could have far-reaching consequences.

This is compounded by the fact that the only vessel capable of repairing these cables is currently situated 8,800km away, on Africa’s east coast, which means the soonest repair timeframe is mid-September – assuming favourable weather conditions.

As we navigate the intricate web of international connectivity, it's therefore imperative to address the challenges that threaten to disrupt our digital lifelines.

Fragile links in the chain

The sudden downtime of WACS and SAT-3 has sent shockwaves through the tech landscape. While SAT-3 carries a modest 800Gbps of traffic, WACS carries a colossal 14.5Tbps, and the fragility of these cables' redundancy systems has become apparent. The incident underscores the critical importance of diversification and redundancy within our connectivity architecture.

Unraveling the intricacies of these disruptions reveals a vulnerability that extends deep beneath the ocean's surface. The underlying cause, a rockfall in the Congo Canyon, a very deep undersea trench, has left us grappling with the reality that even well-armored cables are not impervious to natural forces. WACS, for instance, comprises only four pairs of fiber amid its robust armor.

This calls for a strategic shift in our approach to safeguarding the vital links in our digital ecosystem and reminds us of the importance of resilience in our digital infrastructure. As we march toward an increasingly interconnected future, lessons learned from these disruptions should not be dismissed lightly.

The commissioning of the Google Equiano cable, boasting a massive 144Tbps capacity, provides a glimmer of hope. Yet, the fact that this cable was only commissioned in March and not yet fully integrated into our network highlights the importance of proactive planning and adaptation.

Crafting a solution

To avert a catastrophe, it's crucial that we rethink our current approach to undersea cable redundancy. The vulnerability exposed by these incidents calls for a paradigm shift in our understanding of cable architecture.

Multiplicity is the key; internet service providers must proactively establish multiple routes across different cables. A diversified approach spreads the load and enables efficient rerouting of traffic. While latency might experience slight fluctuations, maintaining connectivity in the face of disruption is a priority that outweighs minor inconveniences.

However, the quest for absolute resilience comes with a cost. Our society's insatiable hunger for guaranteed high-speed internet at minimal expense poses a challenge. Creating a fully foolproof system necessitates investments that the general public might not be willing to make. Striking the balance between cost and reliability demands a concerted effort, one that hinges on acknowledging the intricate interplay of economics and digital sustainability.

An uncertain future

While these recent incidents serve as stark warnings, it's vital to recognise the potential for even graver disruptions.

Historical precedent points to the possibility of simultaneous failures, driven by factors beyond our control. The Carrington Event of 1859, named after Richard Carrington, the astronomer who first recorded a solar storm-induced catastrophe, offers a sobering analogy. The same electromagnetic vulnerabilities that rendered telegraph systems inoperable during that event apply to our undersea internet cables.

Could a global-scale solar storm render entire cable systems useless, disrupting communications on an unprecedented scale?

As South Africa grapples with the fragility of its undersea internet cables, the time for action is now. As an industry we should be anticipating and mitigating potential disruptions. It's imperative that we rethink the very design of these cables and the electronic repeaters that power them exploring innovations that could bolster their resilience. Grounding cables on the seabed and developing technologies that can withstand solar storm-induced disruptions are both avenues worth exploring.

In a world where connectivity is paramount, South Africa's dependence on undersea internet cables demands a robust and forward-thinking strategy. Embracing redundancy, diversification, and innovative technologies can pave the way for a more resilient digital landscape. The challenges are substantial, but the potential rewards – uninterrupted connectivity, even in the face of catastrophe – are undeniably worth pursuing.