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Updated May 14, 2024, 9:48am EDT
africa

East Africa outages stir fears over Africa’s internet vulnerabilities

AFP via Getty Images
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The News

Fresh damage to undersea cables that supply African countries with the internet has raised new fears about the continent’s network vulnerabilities. The damage marks the third widespread disruption since the start of the year.

Internet users in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda reported different levels of disruption between Sunday and Monday following cuts to two submarine cables, EASSy (East Africa Submarine System) and Seacom. The breaks also caused disruptions in Mozambique, Malawi, and Madagascar, according to Cloudflare, a US internet data company.

Kenya’s communications authority said the process of recovery had begun, though “slow speeds may remain in the coming few days.” Telecom operator Safaricom said it would source “additional capacity with other undersea cable partners” to make up for the shortfall in connectivity. MTN and Telkom, two South African telecom majors operating in East Africa, said they were trying to “minimize” the disruption.

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Tanzania has experienced the most severe outage, data from the Internet Outage Detection and Analysis project at the Georgia Institute of Technology shows. The US embassy in the country was closed to the public for two days until May 15 following the downtime, except for in cases of emergencies involving American citizens.

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Know More

The outage mirrors similar events in March, when cuts to four cables disrupted internet access in Nigeria, Ghana and other West African countries. For days, service providers only offered intermittent connection to users, stifling online banking activities, Ghana’s stock exchange, and other internet-based services.

Connectivity in East Africa was also limited in February when three submarine cables that run through the Red Sea were damaged. The International Cable Protection Committee, a group representing 98% of subsea cable operators, said the breaks were likely caused by the anchor of a cargo ship that was shot at by the Yemen-based Houthi rebel group. Those cables have not been repaired due to tensions over right of access to those waters.

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Fixing the breaks on EASSy and Seacom may take several days to weeks, and may be “dependent on weather, sea conditions and the extent of the damage,” said Chris Wood, chief executive of the West Indian Ocean Cable Company, which helped Google to land a subsea cable in Africa. MainOne, an internet provider in West Africa, announced last week that its cables that were cut in March have now been repaired.

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Alexander’s view

Anxieties that have accompanied the three episodes of cable cuts in three months underscore Africa’s increased dependence on the internet for commerce and daily life.

Africa’s internet economy could reach $180 billion by 2025, according to estimates by Google and the World Bank’s private investment arm, the International Financial Corporation. That prospect should increase the sense of urgency among policymakers and service providers to build more resilience into the continent’s internet architecture.

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Internet disruption in Africa tends to happen sub-regionally because cables run through multiple countries clustered together. “East Africa has one of the most advanced regional integration programs, perhaps only outdone by the Southern African Customs Union and the Francophone units,” said Bright Simons, research lead at IMANI Center for Policy and Education in Ghana.

“Yet, just like elsewhere, it has not been able to activate a regional framework for telecom emergencies like this, leaving operators to arrange ad hoc cross-border arrangements,” Simons said. Telecom regulatory authorities should work out “a contingency quasi-treaty” to coordinate faster responses during such emergencies, he said.

Africa has seen an increase in submarine cables over the past two decades, including Google’s 15,000-kilometer South Africa to Portugal Equiano cable, and the 45,000-kilometer 2Africa project owned by a consortium led by Meta. They have sometimes come under criticism for ulterior motives: Two Mozilla-affiliated researchers said the tech giants’ cable projects “are using colonialist tactics to exploit Africa on a massive scale,” despite claiming to bridge the digital gap. But more cables has meant more capacity for internet access on the continent.

Merely having new cables is not enough for expanding Africa’s access to the internet. Integrating them into other critical national infrastructure and ensuring interoperability within each region is the key to long-term resilience.

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Step Back

The West Africa Cable System, which serves Nigeria and its neighbors, reported two breaks in the first half of 2020, while the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) line’s break in 2018 resulted in a total internet blackout in Mauritania for two days.

ACE was Mauritania’s sole submarine cable connection, but plans have since been launched for a second connection. The European Investment Bank is providing majority funding for a new €35 million cable.

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