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Seacom carries extra traffic as WACS outage continues

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 31 Mar 2020
Byron Clatterbuck, CEO of Seacom.
Byron Clatterbuck, CEO of Seacom.

The breaking of the West Africa Cable System (WACS) submarine cable has resulted in the Seacom cable system carrying a large amount of South Africa’s international Internet traffic.

So said Byron Clatterbuck, CEO of Seacom, in an e-mail interview with ITWeb yesterday.

This as a vessel is currently on its way to fix the WACS cable, which broke over the weekend, with full restoration expected by 4 April.

The breaking of the cable has resulted in South Africans experiencing slow Internet speeds.

Clatterbuck says although not a direct consortium investor, Seacom is one of the largest users of the WACS cable system between SA and Europe.

He points out Seacom uses the WACS cable system predominantly as a “protected” path for Seacom’s main data superhighway on Africa’s east coast – the Seacom cable system.

“At a fundamental level, it means that if there is an outage on the Seacom cable system, then our customers’ Internet traffic is routed on the WACS cable system, and if there is an outage on the WACS cable system, as there is at the moment, then Internet traffic gets routed on the Seacom cable system,” says Clatterbuck.

Meshed network

Privately-operated Seacom launched Africa’s first broadband submarine cable system along the continent’s eastern and southern coasts in 2009.

“As Seacom is one of the largest Internet providers in Africa, we must ensure our network is affordable, reliable and of the highest quality. This means low latency or low round-trip delay, low packet loss, and data speeds that customers pay for,” says Clatterbuck.

“To achieve this, we operate our network on a ‘meshed’ basis, meaning over multiple linear routes that are diverse from each other as best we can and, therefore, do not rely fully on any one cable path. The WACS cable system forms a core part of our meshed Internet service platform that ensures we offer an ‘always on’ and high-quality Internet experience to our customers.”

According to Clatterbuck, the WACS cable break is affecting Seacom in two ways. “It means customers who have purchased WACS capacity from Seacom to form part of their own network backbone are now ‘hard down’ on this route, and they must be using or looking to use other routes to transmit their data traffic.

“More importantly, it means that for Seacom’s Internet/managed services platform, we are now relying predominantly on the Seacom cable system to carry a large amount of South Africa’s international Internet traffic.”

He adds the SAT-3 cable is also in the Seacom network backbone, but unfortunately the SAT-3 cable system is currently undergoing repairs and is not operational.

Nonetheless, Telkom confirmed to ITWeb this morning that SAT-3 was successfully restored last night and 140GB international traffic is now available, thereby alleviating congestion.

The SAT-3 fault was located in a similar area to a previous break in January, which was caused by a short circuit.

“Being overly reliant on any single cable system is always a risk. However, as Seacom owns and operates the Seacom cable system itself, we are, therefore, more directly involved in its routing, repair and maintenance, giving us greater flexibility in dealing with potential outages or issues on the Seacom cable system,” Clatterbuck says.

He adds that all Internet customers of Seacom are mitigated from the impact of the WACS outage, by being routed over the Seacom cable system as well.

Most Seacom Internet customers will not have noticed the WACS outage, as they are routed over the Seacom cable system, he notes.

Re-routing traffic

However, he says, some customers may notice longer latency as their traffic is now being routed across South Africa first (from Cape Town, for example) and then up the east coast of Africa on the Seacom cable system.

“Furthermore, it has always been Seacom’s position to help the industry and our partners mitigate network impacts when there are cable breaks or outages on other systems. We offer as much restoration capacity as we can (temporary alternative path) to any ISP or network service provider that needs it, and we always take a position to price this fairly and on a short-term basis. As we are a private cable system, this does allow us to activate and provide restoration as quickly as possible to customers looking for restoration.”

Clatterbuck points out the WACs cable system is very important to South Africa, as it is one of three key high-speed (multi-terabit) cables connecting SA.

“Yes, there are only three! Seacom was the first to go live in 2009, followed by EASSy in 2010, and then WACS in 2012. So having only three international multi-terabit cable systems connecting all users in South Africa means it is never a good thing when one of them is down, as that pushes all the traffic to the other two. WACS is a critically important link for South Africa, particularly for customers in the Western Cape, but also as a key protection path for all South African customers in the event of any subsea cable outages on Africa’s east coast.”

He also explains that many ISPs in SA are heavily reliant on the WACS cable system, as the system is a low-cost high-speed system that connects Africa to Europe on a low-latency routing.

“Each ISP would have its own network design that might include transmission routes on WACS, EASSy, SAT-3 and the Seacom cable system to provide their customers with an Internet service.

“If an ISP was using WACS for more than half their traffic routing, however, then their customers are likely facing congestion and poor Internet quality. We have seen reports that some of Africa’s biggest consumer ISPs are now using Seacom’s service to provide restoration and improved quality during this WACS outage.

“It is particularly critical for customers at home to have a reliable Internet service during this period of national disaster in South Africa due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and Seacom hopes all international cable systems remain stable going forward,” Clatterbuck concludes.