Africa offline amidst cable outages

02 April 2024

On 14 March, large swathes of Africa were left without internet connectivity following a catastrophic subsea cable outage. The WACS, ACE, MainOne and SAT3 subsea systems have all been affected, impacting on connectivity across Liberia, Benin, Ghana, and Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Namibia, South Africa, and Lesotho, among others.

MainOne, owned by Equinix, said that an external incident resulted in the damage to its cable system, and has ruled out human activity as a cause.

“Our preliminary analysis would suggest some form of seismic activity on the seabed resulted in a break to the cable,” said MainOne. “Given the distance from land, and the cable depth of about 3kms at the point of fault, any kind of human activity – ship anchors, fishing, drilling etc. has been immediately ruled out.”

While outages have occurred before, this disruption “points to something larger and this is amongst the most severe,” said Isik Mater, director of research at NetBlocks, which documents internet disruptions around the world. Data transmission and measurement showed a major disruption to international transits, “likely at or near the subsea network cable landing points.”

To mitigate the impact of such outages – which are always a possibility - many network operators have invested in capacity in multiple subsea cables to ensure redundancy and maintain the stability of their networks.

Seacom confirmed that services on its WACS were down and that customers who relied on that cable were being automatically redirected to the Equiano cable, while Paratus is offering alternatives to customers via its capacity on both Equiano and SACS.

“In today’s world, reliable internet connectivity is no longer a luxury but an absolute necessity,” said Paratus Group chief technical officer, Rolf Mendelsohn. “As a responsible network operator, we have invested heavily in building a robust and resilient infrastructure, including redundant undersea cable systems. Thanks to our proactive approach, our customers remain connected and are experiencing minimal service disruptions during this challenging period.”

Liquid Intelligent Technologies confirmed a similar message: “Liquid Intelligent Technologies confirms that multiple undersea cables operating along Africa’s West coast are experiencing outages around the Abidjan area; the exact location and reason are being investigated. Our investment in multiple undersea cables along the East and West coasts has allowed us to carry traffic with minimal disruption.”

Angola Cables – which owns and operates SACS with a joint venture of five Angolan operators - is also redirecting traffic via SACS. The company added that it “has network backup and restoration solutions available through cables that have not been affected by the faults off the Ivory Coast… Our technical team is currently diligently working with industry partners to stabilise international connectivity and to ensure that we can provide support and guarantee the stability of services to African network operators and entities that need it.”

Chris Wood, Group CEO of WIOCC, meanwhile, confirmed that “immediately the four subsea cables were severed off the coast of Cote d‘Ivoire, our engineering, operations and field teams swung into action. Our clients connected directly at OADC data centres in South Africa and Nigeria are already protected from the impact of the subsea outages due to the unique levels of redundancy and scale of the WIOCC core backbone. In Lagos, the Equiano cable, in which WIOCC owns a fibre pair, has not been affected by the incident off Cote d‘Ivoire. WIOCC lands the cable directly into the OADC data centre, establishing the most resilient digital ecosystem hub in Lagos and offering the most direct connectivity to Europe and South Africa. As a result, OADC’s data centres and WIOCC’s hyperscale network are playing a key role in restoring services to other facilities and operators currently suffering outages in Lagos and elsewhere on the continent.”

Satellite is playing a key role in bridging the connectivity gap while the subsea cables remain offline. CMC Networks – which utilises a combination of technologies, including subsea cables - has now added low Earth orbit (LEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO) satellite connectivity to its portfolio of solutions.

“The recent damage to subsea cables and the subsequent disruption to businesses across South Africa has highlighted the need for a wide variety of connectivity options and digital infrastructure that has the resiliency to ensure business continuity during unforeseen events. Our satellite solutions enable service providers and enterprises to manage risk and maximise uptime,” said Marisa Trisolino, CEO at CMC Networks.

As for restoration timelines… According to the National Communications Authority of Ghana and landing service providers for the various submarine cables involved, complete repair of ACE, MainOne, SAT-3 and WACS submarine cables could take up to five weeks. Cable landing service providers have remotely identified the approximate locations of the damage and are sending repair vessels to the site to carry out physical assessments and refit.

“We are actively working with our maintenance partners, vessel owners and relevant authorities to expedite the repair of our submarine cable. We are very optimistic that our cable will be repaired as planned and services will be fully restored, so that we can continue to operate with continued integrity of the submarine cable,” said MainOne on X (formerly Twitter).