Exemplifying resilient communications systems

04 June 2024

The March subsea cable outage was huge news across the globe – but how big an impact did it have on consumers, and what lessons were learned by operators?

On 14 March, four subsea cable systems – WACS, MainOne, SAT-3, and ACE - suffered significant damage from a major subsea landslide off Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, significantly impacting upon communications across the African continent. Countries including Liberia, Benin, Ghana, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Namibia, South Africa, and Lesotho, were all affected.

The March incident shortly followed another in the Red Sea in February, wherein three cables were damaged by an anchor drag, highlighting the vulnerabilities inherent in the subsea cable sector.

“This is, unfortunately, not the first time that damages to undersea cables have caused internet disruptions. In 2020, damages caused internet disruptions in West Africa, while in 2018, 10 West African countries were completely offline for 48 hours, due to damages to the ACE submarine cable,” explains Rhys Morgan, general manager – vice president, media & networks, EMEA, Intelsat.

Subsea cables are indeed vulnerable to accidental damage from fishing trawlers and ship anchors; natural disasters like earthquakes and underwater landslides; and deliberate sabotage or vandalism.

“The recent incident off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire highlights the vulnerability of multiple cables to a single geological event, underscoring the importance of cable route diversity and redundancy in mitigating the impact of such occurrences. Having redundancy through multiple cable systems is important for network resilience,” says Rolf Mendelsohn, Paratus Group CTO. “In addition to the most recent incident off Côte d’Ivoire, there have been two recent incidents off Muanda, DRC which were the result of undersea landslides, with both landslides having been presumably precipitated by seismic activity in the Mid Atlantic Ocean.”

Feeling the impact
The impact of the cable outage was significant enough to make headlines in major national newspapers across the globe – perhaps a telling indication of our reliance on connectivity.

“The damage to these critical undersea cables has led to widespread internet and online service disruptions, affecting millions of people across Africa over the past month,” says Mendelsohn. “This has far-reaching consequences for commercial operations, personal communications, healthcare, and education sectors that rely on stable internet connectivity.”

Morgan agrees that the damage caused immediate widespread connectivity challenges across the African continent and beyond, with banking payments not processed and office workers left without access to emails and cloud services, amongst others.

“Whilst traffic was rerouted, the reliance on the internet for daily operations across various sectors highlights the devastating impact that a total outage can have on the continent’s economy, although some countries are better connected than others,” opines Morgan. “For example, South Africa is connected by nine submarine cables, whilst countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia only have one fibre optic cable actually coming into the country. Any breakage is felt heavily across these countries.”

The Nigerian economy reportedly suffered a major setback due to network disruptions experienced by MTN and Airtel from the cable outage, raising concerns about its impact on the country’s stability. The economy has been particularly hard hit by the disruption since reliable network services are crucial for online transactions, and the disruption has led to a decline in sales for online retailers, with customers facing difficulties in accessing e-commerce platforms.

“The network disruption has, to a large extent, affected the financial sector, hindering online banking services and mobile payment platforms,” reports Temidayo Adefioye, CEO, Switchcon. “Also, access to banking services has been impeded, leading to delayed transactions, limited access to funds, and difficulties in conducting business operations. This has affected individuals as well as corporate entities, including payment processors and financial institutions, with implications for financial inclusion and the efficiency of payment systems.”

Accordingly, Nigeria now wants West African countries to join forces to protect shared telecommunications infrastructure and diversify connectivity to ensure uninterruptible connections. Aminu Maida, executive vice chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, says that the cable outages have raised the urgent need for the subregion to establish a mechanism to protect itself from damage to submarine infrastructure and its impact.

“Securing telecom infrastructure is paramount for fostering Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and enhancing investor confidence in the West African subregion. The reliability and resilience of telecommunications networks are crucial factors that investors consider when evaluating regional opportunities,” says Maida.

The vice chairman believes that the recent cable cuts have highlighted the need for a coordinated, multilateral approach to protecting shared infrastructure across member nations. As such, he proposes a framework for joint monitoring, risk mitigation, and emergency response procedures for the submarine cables that pass through the subregion. Maida adds that, in addition to strengthening its subregional infrastructure resilience, the region needs to promote the diversification of its connectivity, conduct regular capacity assessments, and facilitate the designation of telecoms infrastructure as critical national infrastructure in member countries.

Crisis response
Following reports of the outage, the response from the cable operators was swift and decisive; however, repairing complex subsea cable infrastructure – hundreds of metres below sea level - is no mean feat.

Nevertheless, according to the National Communications Authority of Ghana and landing service providers for the submarine cables involved, complete repair of the ACE, MainOne, SAT-3 and WACS submarine could take up to five weeks – so any time now.

“The repair process involves specialised cable ships locating the damaged sections, retrieving the cables from the seabed, and splicing in new segments. Each ship needs the exact cable spec to be loaded in port prior to departure so it is a logistically and practically time-consuming exercise,” says Mendelsohn. “In addition, the repair vessels have to wait for suitable marine weather (small swells) in order to be able to effect repairs. The costs are typically borne by the consortium of telecom companies that own the affected cable systems.”

Following the outage, the cable companies involved scrambled to redirect traffic via alternative routes while the repairs were ongoing, with Liquid Intelligent Technologies, Angola Cables, Seacom, WIOCC and Paratus Group all having redundancies in place prior to the incident.

“Our priority is to ensure minimal disruption and maximum resilience for our clients,” reported Ryan Sher, group chief operating officer at WIOCC. “We have invested heavily in deploying diverse, highly-scalable national and international connectivity to support the uptime requirements of our wholesale client base. Investing at scale means that we consistently carry extra capacity, ensuring we are able to rapidly turn up or re-route capacity to address unexpected network disruptions. It also enables us to deploy short-term restoration solutions for other operators on a case-by-case basis.”

Connecting a continent
Swinging into its element, satellite has proven key to reconnecting Africa amid the cable outage disaster. With ubiquitous coverage, satellite is the only way to bring connectivity to countries around the continent, quickly, easily and cost effectively.

“Traffic that would usually be carried on the impacted cables was rerouted, but this highlighted how critical a stable and resilient internet infrastructure is for the economic growth and functioning of modern societies,” says Morgan. “A hybrid solution that includes terrestrial/maritime cables, wireless technology and satellites is needed to build that resilience into networks. A multi-layered approach with these highly complementary technologies will deliver the resiliency and security that MNOs expect for their networks.”

Indeed, CMC Networks – which utilises a combination of technologies to connect Africa, including the WACS, SAT-3 and ACE subsea cables – reports that it 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,” says Marisa Trisolino, CEO at CMC Networks.

Mendelsohn asserts that the emergence of LEO satellite constellations has made satellite connectivity a more viable option for reconnecting a continent during undersea cable outages: “in addition to leveraging redundant undersea cable capacity, CSPs like Paratus Group are also utilising satellite solutions (GEO and LEO) to ensure connectivity during cable outages. Paratus Zambia and Mozambique, for example, has successfully integrated Starlink into its suite of solutions, providing reliable high-bandwidth connectivity to businesses in remote areas. CSPs have also secured additional capacity on operational undersea cables to restore services. For example, some providers have turned to the recently launched Equiano cable, to mitigate the impact of the outages caused by the damaged cables.”

The specific advantages offered by LEO - high-speed, low-latency connectivity comparable to fibre; the ability to reach remote and underserved areas; rapid deployment and setup; and affordable and user-friendly equipment – has made it a valuable tool for cable companies.

“CSPs like Paratus Group are successfully using LEO solutions as a backup solution alongside their direct internet services, improving overall network resilience,” shares Mendelsohn. “However, it’s important to note that satellite solutions are still best suited as a complementary technology to undersea fibre optic cables rather than a complete replacement. Fibre optics still offer higher data capacities and lower costs per bit for high-traffic routes. An integrated approach combining undersea cables, terrestrial fibre networks, and LEO satellite solutions can provide the most comprehensive and resilient connectivity for the continent.”

A resilient Africa
All reports suggest that, at the very least, the continent’s subsea cable operators were reasonably well-prepared for March’s cable outage, with each having multiple redundancies in place. Questions remain about whether these preparations were adequate, given the responses out of Nigeria.

“In this instance, various operators, whether satellite or terrestrial, came together to help restore connectivity and limit the impact,” says Morgan. “However, with governments increasingly requiring a stable and resilient internet infrastructure for the economic growth, as well as ensure access to health and education services, anticipation is critical to help cover all eventualities and avoid any disruptions that could have some long-term impacts. Satellites are a crucial part of a necessary technology mix to ensure a much-needed resilient connectivity.”

Mendelsohn, meanwhile, believes that going forward, the integration of satellite solutions can help mitigate the long-term negative impacts of undersea cable outages on various sectors. By providing a reliable backup connectivity option, businesses can maintain operations and minimise lost productivity and revenue; schools and universities can continue online learning programs; healthcare providers can maintain access to telemedicine and digital health platforms; and government services and financial systems remain operational.

Moreover, “the availability of satellite solutions has been particularly beneficial for industries such as logistics, manufacturing, hospitality, mining, and education in remote areas. By ensuring reliable connectivity, satellite solutions can support the digital transformation of these sectors and contribute to overall economic resilience,” adds Mendelsohn.

Given the scale of the outage, it’s likely that going forwards, we’ll see a greater focus around resiliency by design, and increased partnerships with wireless and satellite providers to further bolster the continent’s networks.

“As CSPs continue to integrate satellite and terrestrial networks, the long-term impacts of connectivity disruptions on African economies and social sectors can be minimised. The incident underscores the critical importance of investing in diverse and resilient subsea cable infrastructure to minimise the impact of such events on African economies and societies in the long term,” concludes Mendelsohn.