In an era driven by digital connectivity, the recent events involving the unprecedented damage to three of South Africa’s major west coast undersea internet cables have thrust the country into a precarious position.
The disruption of critical undersea cables — Wacs, Sat-3 and now Ace — has highlighted the vulnerability of the country’s internet infrastructure and exposed potential risks that could have far-reaching consequences.
This is compounded by the fact that the only vessel capable of repairing these cables was situated 8 800km away when they broke, on Africa’s east coast, which means the soonest repair timeframe is mid-September – assuming favourable weather conditions.
As we navigate the intricate web of international connectivity, it’s therefore imperative to address the challenges that threaten to disrupt our digital lifelines.
The sudden downtime on Wacs and Sat-3 has sent shockwaves through the tech landscape. While Sat-3 carries a modest 800Gbit/s of traffic, Wacs carries a colossal 14.5Tbit/s, and the fragility of these cables’ redundancy systems has become apparent. The incident underscores the critical importance of diversification and redundancy in our connectivity architecture.
Unravelling the intricacies of these internet disruptions reveals a vulnerability that extends deep beneath the ocean’s surface. The underlying cause, a rockfall in the Congo Canyon, a very deep undersea trench, has left us grappling with the reality that even well-armoured cables are not impervious to natural forces. Wacs, for instance, comprises only four pairs of fibre inside its robust armour.
This calls for a strategic shift in our approach to safeguarding the vital links in our digital ecosystem and reminds us of the importance of resilience in our digital infrastructure. As we march towards an increasingly interconnected future, lessons learned from these disruptions should not be dismissed lightly.
The commissioning of Google’s Equiano cable, boasting a massive 144Tbit/s design capacity, provides a glimmer of hope. Yet the fact that this cable was only commissioned in March and is not yet fully integrated into our networks highlights the importance of proactive planning and adaptation.
To avert a catastrophe, it’s crucial that we rethink our current approach to undersea cable redundancy. The vulnerability exposed by these incidents calls for a paradigm shift in our understanding of cable architecture.
Multiplicity is the key; internet service providers must proactively establish multiple routes across different cables. A diversified approach spreads the load and enables efficient rerouting of traffic. While latency might experience slight fluctuations, maintaining connectivity in the face of disruption is a priority that outweighs minor inconveniences.
However, the quest for absolute resilience comes with a cost. Our society’s insatiable hunger for guaranteed high-speed internet at minimal expense poses a challenge. Creating a fully foolproof system necessitates investments that the general public might not be willing to make. Striking the balance between cost and reliability demands a concerted effort, one that hinges on acknowledging the intricate interplay of economics and digital sustainability.
As South Africa grapples with the fragility of its undersea internet cables, the time for action is now. As an industry we should be anticipating and mitigating potential disruptions.
- The author, Paul Colmer, is executive committee member at the Wireless Access Providers’ Association