Internet Outages Highlight Africa’s Few and Faulty Subsea Cables

Faulty subsea cable
USN file image

Published Jun 2, 2024 5:58 PM by Brian Gicheru Kinyua


In mid-May, residents in East Africa woke up to internet disruptions that persisted for nearly a week. Preliminary investigations by communications authorities found that damage to deep-sea cables near a coastal town in South Africa - which supply East Africa with internet connectivity - was the cause of network down-time.

The disruption came with immense costs to the service industry in the region. Early in the week, the U.S Embassy in Tanzania also had to suspend services such as consular appointments due to network issues.

Cases of internet disruptions across Africa have been on the rise this year, exacerbated by the ongoing Red Sea crisis. In March, parts of West Africa suffered major internet outages due to damage to at least four subsea cables. Some internet providers partly attributed the damage of cables to an anchor-drag incident in the Southern Red Sea caused by the drifting (and later sunken) bulker Rubymar.

While the general public interprets these disruptions as mere technical hitches, countries around the world are increasingly recognizing submarine internet cables as part of their critical infrastructure. This has prompted concerted efforts by some African governments to invest more in internet connectivity through additional fiber optic cables. Currently, Africa is connected to around 70 cable systems (some active and others planned) out of the 485 active cables in the world. However, some countries in the continent still rely on a single fiber optic cable, signaling massive potential in further investment in a reliable digital infrastructure in the region.

But even as countries work to build redundancy for their internet connection through extra cables, national maritime security strategies must capture security of this critical infrastructure. This brings the question of who finances these projects as American and Chinese tech monopolies jostle for influence in the African internet supply ecosystem. Alphabet, Meta and Huawei are currently financing major cable connection projects in Africa.

“Who wires the world and gets to control the digital infrastructure really matters particularly in the African context. The infrastructure is not neutral. There are fewer cables in the South Atlantic than North Atlantic. For example, the city of London has four times the data capacity of Southern Africa. The cable themselves may be seen as of little consequence but they are basis of much bigger conversations,” remarked Jess Auerbach, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town who is currently writing a book on internet cable connections in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean islands.

In a recent interview, the director of the maritime security research network Safe Seas, Christian Bueger, echoed similar sentiments about the dangers of a region like Africa solely relying on internet cables provided by big foreign tech companies. This emerging arrangement is being referred to as digital colonialism, a departure from the previous approach where cables were usually financed through public-private partnerships. The idea behind this earlier arrangement was to include public interest in the control and monitoring of digital infrastructure.

“To counter the big tech influence in internet supply space, Africa will need to embrace regional cooperation at many levels. This includes embracing joint regional projects on data infrastructure, which can happen at the level of Indian Ocean Commission for African Indian Ocean islands or the other regional economic blocs for the rest of the continent,” added Bueger.