The Day Africa Lost Internet: Undersea Cable Disruptions and the State of Global Connectivity

Key Takeaways

  • Africa experienced a widespread internet outage on March 14, 2024, due to under-ocean fiber optic cable failures, affecting millions across countries including South Africa, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast.
  • Conflicting reports suggest causes ranging from seismic activity to attacks in the Red Sea by the Hauti movement.
  • The incident highlights the vulnerability of global internet infrastructure to natural disasters, cyberattacks, and physical damage, as well as economic, education, and healthcare consequences.
  • To prevent future disruptions, experts speak of the need for investing in resilient cable networks and diversifying connectivity options

On March 14, 2024, millions of people in Africa lost internet connection. Government, organizations, companies, and people from South Africa, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Benin, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and other countries were left without connection and looking for answers.

Providers soon discovered that the cause for the massive outage was linked to a failure in the under-ocean internet fiber optic cables infrastructure that connects African countries with the online world. Still, as African countries work to restore connectivity, many questions remain.

Techopedia sat with experts in global connectivity to understand the local and international implications, what caused the blackout, what the state of global undersea fiber optic cable infrastructure is, and how vulnerable it is to natural disasters, cyberattacks, and physical attacks.

Africa Outage: Seismic Activity or Hauti Attack?

Cloudflare reported that the internet outage seemed to move from the northern part of West Africa down to South Africa. In total, 13 countries were affected by nationwide outages, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, South Africa, The Gambia, and Togo.

MainOne — the leading operator in the region — said that the under-ocean cable infrastructure suffered damage due to seismic activity, as reported by Reuters. However, other reports signal the ongoing conflict in the Red Sea, which began in October 2023 when the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen launched missiles and armed drones at Israel.

Since then, Hauti forces have attacked merchant and naval vessels in the Red Sea while themselves facing missile attacks from the U.S. and other international forces.

Just nine days before the wide African internet outage, on March 5, the Financial Times reported that telecom groups in the region were rerouting internet traffic after Houthi attacks in the Red Sea to under-ocean internet cables.

But the cables in the Red Sea are not just any cables, they are vital infrastructure that connects the regions of Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Hong Kong telecom HGC Global Communications said that of the 15 oceanic cables that pass through the Red Sea, four had been cut, forcing operators to divert 25% of the traffic for affected regions. While Hauti forces deny attacking the internet infrastructure, and local Africa-based operators assure the March 14 damages were caused by seismic activity, the regional and timely proximity of events cannot be denied.

Vulnerabilities of the Global Oceanic Internet Cable Infrastructure

As modern and ethereal as technologies like the cloud, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 4G and 5G sound, to this day, more than 97% of the world’s internet traffic passes through subsea cables at some point, according to the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA).

Stretching about 1.4 million kilometers or more around the world, subsea cables are the backbone of the global internet infrastructure. These 400 (and counting) underwater cables connect islands, countries, regions, and continents, but the African outage shows that disruptions in these systems can have significant consequences.

Vulnerabilities of the Global Oceanic Internet Cable Infrastructure
A map of the undersea internet cables in 2024. (Submarine Cable Map)

Star Kashman, cybersecurity and privacy law expert and attorney, recognized by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — the governing body that oversees the CIA and NSA — spoke to Techopedia about the issue.

“Global data flow is significantly supported by undersea cable infrastructure, which, despite its importance, remains vulnerable to damage that may arise from natural disasters, shipping activity, and cyberattack.

 

“These cables, which lay deep in the ocean, are the backbone of international internet traffic. Despite this, their security and maintenance are difficult to manage due to their remote locations and the complexity of maintaining its presence in the ocean.”

Techopedia asked Tim Kravchunovsky, founder of the global telecommunications network Chirp, how common disruptions in these cables are and what their vulnerabilities are.

“There are more than 400 undersea cables facilitating crucial connections across militaries, governments, research bodies, and financial institutions globally,”  Kravchunovsky said.

“Notably, the U.S. relies on about 88 such cables, with plans for 17 additional ones in 2024, highlighting the infrastructure’s critical role in sustaining worldwide cyber connectivity and seamless information exchange.”

Kravchunovsky explained that undersea cables are highly resilient but not immune to vulnerabilities, including physical damage and potential cyber threats.

“The most common cause of damage to these cables is accidental physical damage, often from commercial fishing and shipping activities, contributing to roughly 150 to 200 faults annually.”

Kravchunovsky explained why these cables need to be monitored and protected.

“While cyberattacks, natural disasters, and direct attacks pose risks, the prevalent issue remains physical damage, highlighting the need for ongoing monitoring and protection efforts against such incidents.”

Submarine Fiber Cable Market: Engineering Concepts and Technologies for Continuity and Reliability

The recent Technavio report predicts that the submarine fiber cable market will increase by $5.93 billion at a CAGR of 13.02% between 2023 and 2028. The accelerated growth in the market is linked to the expansion of telecommunication networks, adoption and scaling of the cloud, new low-latency applications, AI, and demand for connectivity.

To provide continual, reliable services, submarine fiber cables are engineered as redundant networks. This allows operators to rapidly divert traffic when systems detect disruptions,

The theory is simple. If one route experiences an outage, the other paths can automatically handle the traffic, keeping everything running smoothly. But in the real world the concept is not always executed as it should.

Kashman told Techopedia that the region of Africa needs to enhance the resilience of Africa’s underwater cable network; investment in alternative routes and substitute technologies may be essential.

He said: “This would include increasing the number of cables to prevent specific single points of failure, implementing more vigorous monitoring and response systems, and studying and exploring advancements in cable technology to allow for resisting damage.

“Additionally, diversifying connectivity options through satellite internet or other wireless technology can provide for backup solutions.”

Economic Impact on Africa and the World

The costs of the African internet outage are nearly impossible to estimate. However, it’s undeniable that it has been a hit for the economies of all the affected countries. Kashman described these impacts.

“Africa’s internet infrastructure is crucial for Africa’s economic growth, education, and healthcare, and outages can disrupt these sectors. Internationally, companies that are reliant on seamless digital communication may potentially face delays and financial loss.”

Additionally, the outage also has global effects.

“Connectivity disruptions in Africa have global implications, not only hindering local development in Africa but also impacting international businesses and services which rely on global interconnectivity,” Kashma added.

Building Resilience in Africa

Mattias Fridström, Vice President and Chief Evangelist at Arelion — a global connectivity provider — also spoke to Techopedia on the consequences of the outage.

“A lot of the content consumed in Africa is stored in Europe. Therefore, any connection disruption between Africa and Europe will negatively impact the possibility of receiving content.

 

“The same goes for all voice and data traffic used for communication and other streaming services. However, a disrupted international sea cable should not have a major effect locally.”

Fridström said that the general state of global subsea infrastructure is good. “The world is still connected through a number of older cables combined with newer cables built on complementary routes to existing infrastructure,” Fridström explained.

“There are more paths across oceans than ever before, making the resilience to failures much better.

“There are still a few locations with a high density of cables, like the Red Sea, where networks face diversity issues. But, in general, the status of this infrastructure is good.

 

“While it is hard to protect cables against real-world attacks, there are a number of ongoing initiatives to better protect infrastructure. By just adding more diverse cables, you limit the damage of an attack and hopefully reduce the interest in executing an attack in the first place.”

Fridström said that connecting Africa directly to South America and Asia are two ways of improving Africa’s resilience specifically. “Unfortunately, new sea cables are very expensive, so it may take a while before Africa is fully protected from cable cuts,” Fridström concluded.

The Bottom Line

The recent internet blackout in Africa reveals deficits in the state of the global connectivity network, vital for economies and societies around the world.

While the overall health of subsea infrastructure might be considered “good”, and new technologies are emerging to provide resiliency while scaling to meet global demands, conflicts in areas like the Red Sea present a wider threat to stability both in the region and worldwide.

Africa’s internet infrastructure stands exposed as fragile. But this vulnerability isn’t just a regional problem. The engineering of redundant and modern submarine fiber infrastructure is presented as the only viable — but expensive — solution to counter risks and vulnerabilities such as natural disasters, infrastructure manipulation, espionage, cyberwarfare, cyberattacks, and real-world physical attacks and disruptions.

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