Deep cut

DRC: Broken submarine cables disrupt West African internet speed

By Quentin Velluet

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Posted on August 18, 2023 15:23

 © Cross-section of an undersea communications cable (3D illustration). Christoph Burgstedt/Getty Images
Cross-section of an undersea communications cable (3D illustration). Christoph Burgstedt/Getty Images

It could take a month for the Orange Marine team to start repairs on fibre optic lines damaged during underwater landslide off the DRC coast.

Internet users in multiple West African countries have been experiencing slowdowns and connectivity interruptions since 6 August.

The reason is likely to be the recent underwater landslide in the deep canyon beneath the mouth of the Congo River, near the border between the DRC and Angola.

According to fibre optic cable operators, the landslide cut the West Africa Cable System (WACS) and SAT-3, two submarine cables that together serve around 20 countries over thousands of kilometres. There are also concerns that it could take a month before the cables are repaired.

Accident-prone area

Installed in the early 2000s, the underwater infrastructure is owned by a consortium of African and international telecom operators such as the US-based AT&T, Angola Telecom, Camtel, China Telecom Liquid Intelligent Technologies, Maroc Telecom, Orange, PCCW, T-Mobile, Vodafone and Telkom in South Africa.

Situated several hundred kilometres off the DRC coast, the area is renowned for being accident-prone. A similar landslide cut the two cables at the same location in 2020. It took Orange Marine teams six days to address.

Repair has again been allocated to the French cable ship operator. Currently on assignment in Mombasa, Kenya, the Orange Marine vessel Léon Thévenin (usually moored in the port of Cape Town, South Africa) has been given the task.

The time it will take for the ship, which was built in the 1980s under the Mauritian flag, to reach the accident area is difficult to estimate due to inclement weather conditions, although some specialists are putting it at around one month.

Investments by Google and Meta

The impact of the damage on users depends on the number of cables to which their country is connected.

The DRC, for example, is dependent on the SAT-3 cable, which means that switching traffic would take longer and be more complex than in a well-connected country like Côte d’Ivoire or Senegal.

According to Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA) – a tool that monitors the quality of internet connections worldwide – there have been interruptions in Namibia, Angola, the DRC, Congo-Brazzaville and Benin since 6 August.

International technology giants, such as Google (Equiano) and Meta (2Africa), have invested heavily in laying new underwater cables around the continent.

The submarine infrastructures, which have a much higher throughput capacity than older cables such as WACS and SAT-3, are set to improve connection speeds and the resilience of networks against breakdowns or outages.

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