Damaged cable causes Internet blackout in four West African countries

Crossposted on the OpenNet Initiative Blog

Five days ago, the Appfrica tech blog reported an Internet blackout in Benin, a West African country roughly the size of Ohio. The outage, which also affected neighboring Togo, Niger and Nigeria, was caused by damage to the SAT-3 submarine communications cable, which links Portugal and Spain to South Africa via the West African coastline.

The Internet blackout left Benin, Togo and Niger without an optical fiber link to the outside world, meaning Internet users in these countries have been forced to rely on rare, expensive satellite connections to get online. Appfrica managing editor Theresa Carpenter Sondjo, who is based in Benin, writes:

The line to use the computers runs out the door. Every computer is taken, and most have two or three people hovering over its operator. I am the only woman.

In Nigeria, the damage to the SAT-3 cable has affected approximately 70 percent of the country’s bandwidth, “crippling” bank services and Internet access. Access issues in the country are further complicated by the failure of Nigerian telecommunications operator Nitel to pay its dues to the SAT-3 Consortium, which has disconnected the Nigerian end of the cable.

Speaking yesterday to Nigeria’s Business Day, Lanre Ajayi, the president of the Nigeria Internet Group, described the cable as “a critical national resource because of its importance to the economy and to security.” Ajayi has called on the government to declare the SAT-3 cable a “critical national infrastructure.”

When damage to the FLAG and SEA-ME-WE 4 undersea cable systems disrupted service in the Middle East and South Asia, knocking out a substantial percentage of Internet activity in Egypt, India and several other countries, operators were able to reroute service and continue to provide access.

In West Africa, rerouting is more difficult: SAT-3 is the only cable connecting the region to the rest of the world, and telecoms operators must negotiate deals with neighboring countries to direct Internet traffic overland until it reaches another country’s landing cable. Benin’s landing cable services all four countries affected by the damage. Benin has managed to work out an alternate path that routes traffic through the landing cable in Côte d’Ivoire, but Togo and Niger are unable to afford the necessary deals. They will likely have to rely on satellite access until a repair ship, on its way from South Africa, reaches Benin and fixes the cable. The blackout is expected to last at least 10 days in total.

Strangely, news of the blackout has yet to reach the international media. Though Internet penetration rates in the affected countries are low — Nigeria is the highest, at 7.3 percent; with Togo (5.4 percent), Benin (1.9 percent) and Niger (0.5 percent) following — a blackout of this scale seems to deserve more attention than it’s gotten thus far. The lack of press coverage begs the question: if the Internet disappears in four countries, but the countries are in Africa, is it still a story?

  • Diogo

    Oh, this is a very difficult situation…Internet Blackout, never more. lol

  • Sleek

    tricky situation that…Little local reporting? That's strange. The media here in E. Africa would be onto that like white on rice.

  • Theresa Carpenter Sondjo

    Benin was offline for 3 days. Monday morning, we were rerouted through Togo -> Burkina -> Ivory Coast -> Abidjan SAT-3 connection.

    The rerouting means that connections are very slow and quite unreliable, but the temporary solution is far better than waiting until next week, when the repair boat from South Africa is supposed to arrive.

    Strangely, there has been very little local reporting on this issue either.