Undersea cables disaster exposes SA’s internet vulnerability

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 23 Aug 2023
SA's dependence on undersea internet cables “demands a robust and forward-thinking strategy”.
SA's dependence on undersea internet cables “demands a robust and forward-thinking strategy”.

The latest disruption of critical undersea cables highlights the vulnerability of SA’s internet infrastructure, exposing potential risks that could have far-reaching consequences, if not addressed.

This is the word from telecoms industry experts, sharing concerns aroundthe fragility of SA’s internet infrastructure.

This follows the recent unprecedented damage to three of SA’s major west coast undersea internet cables, which thrust the country into connectivity chaos.

The damage to critical undersea cables – the Western African Cable System, South Atlantic 3 and most recently the African Coast to Europe – exposed the redundancy of undersea cables during times of catastrophic disruptions, illustrating the need to rethink current mitigation procedures, they say.

The cable breaks resulted in South African internet service providers diverting their internet traffic onto other subsea cables as part of their disaster recovery process to offer high redundancy.

Paul Colmer, exco member of the Wireless Access Provider’s Association, notes this should serve as a stark warning to SA. He points out SA should recognise the potential for even graver future disruptions and should therefore adequately address the contingency challenges of such incidents.

“Unravelling the intricacies of these disruptions reveals a vulnerability that extends deep beneath the ocean's surface. This calls for a strategic shift in our approach to safe-guarding the vital links in our digital ecosystem and reminds us of the importance of resilience in our digital infrastructure.

“As we march toward an increasingly interconnected future, lessons learned from these disruptions should not be dismissed lightly,” comments Colmer.

It's crucial that Africa’s cable operators rethink their approach to undersea cable redundancy, and incorporate a diversified approach that spreads the load and enables efficient rerouting of traffic, he asserts.

“The vulnerability exposed by these incidents calls for a paradigm shift in our understanding of cable architecture. Multiplicity is the key; ISPs must proactively establish multiple routes across different cables.

“SA's dependence on undersea internet cables demands a robust and forward-thinking strategy. Embracing redundancy, diversification and innovative technologies can pave the way for a more resilient digital landscape.

“While latency might experience slight fluctuations, maintaining connectivity in the face of disruption is a priority that outweighs minor inconveniences.”

Paul Colmer, exco member of the Wireless Access Provider’s Association.
Paul Colmer, exco member of the Wireless Access Provider’s Association.

Matone Ditlhake, CEO of telecoms infrastructure provider Corridor Africa, says the cable failures reverberated across SA, impacting network operators and internet users alike, resulting in delayed website loading times and potential service interruptions.

"As a direct consequence of these cable outages, South African network operators have grappled with increased strain on their network capacities, leading to heightened traffic volumes and challenges in promptly addressing these issues.”

The initial disruption in traffic flow, stemming from the cable damages, had a particularly notable effect on customers utilising international private leased circuit services, he adds.

“To counteract these challenges, certain mobile operators have taken proactive steps, including bolstering capacity on unaffected cable routes and conducting traffic engineering to alleviate potential bottlenecks.

“Despite these concerted efforts, it's important to note that websites hosted in the US or Europe may still experience delays or service failures when accessed from South Africa, and vice versa, owing to the reduced international capacity,” statesDitlhake.

ISPs are diligently labouring to restore full connectivity capacity, he continues.

The maintenance and repair of these undersea cables is in progress, with the cable ship − the Leon Thevenin − landing in Cape Town this week.

“Weather permitting, we anticipate the cables will be fully restored to operational status by the second week of September. Corridor Africa Technologies is steadfastly monitoring the situation and working in close cooperation with South African telecommunications companies to minimise the impact of these disruptions,” Ditlhake concludes.