On March 14, over a dozen African countries experienced internet outages due to damage to submarine fibre optic cables along the West African coastline. The impact was severe, with massive disruptions to financial services. Among the worst affected were Ghana, Liberia, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire, which recorded internet connectivity of 25%, 17%, 14%, and 4% respectively.

Service providers affected include the West African Cable System and African Coast to Europe, which experienced faults, and SAT3 and MainOne, which experienced downtimes. 

Over 1.4 million kilometres of these cables are spread across the earth’s oceans, with France, the US, and Japan being the major suppliers. According to data from Submarine Networks, Egypt has the most subsea cables landing in the continent, with 15. This is followed closely by South Africa and Djibouti, with 11, while Nigeria, Cameroon, and Kenya have six each.

Although the scale of the incident was unprecedented in Africa, cable cuts are relatively common. Around 100 of them happen on an annual basis, on average. Most service providers try to avoid a single point of failure by spreading their network capacity over multiple cables as a backup, which is why you don’t often hear of them. The most common cause of cable faults is human activities. However, MainOne ruled out human activity as the cause of the internet disruption in Africa and suggested it was caused by “some form of seismic activity on the seabed.”

Estimates vary over when full service will be restored. Ghana’s National Communications Authority (NCA) said complete repairs could take up to five weeks

Some internet users in Nigeria observed that some Google services, like YouTube, remained accessible during the outage. Mobile network Globacom also announced that it was unaffected by the disruption. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) disclosed that internet services are now at 90% capacity.

In South Africa, four undersea cables went offline at once. The load-shedding challenge combined with the internet outage has made Starlink an appealing alternative to South African customers as it doesn’t use terrestrial or undersea backhaul infrastructure.

While the productivity and financial losses due to the outage may be unquantifiable at the moment, the silver lining may be that it lays bare the importance of building a more robust internet infrastructure on the African continent. 

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