Ship's anchor cuts Internet access to six East African countries

The outage – caused when the anchor cut a cable – comes as Kenya has assumed a leading regional role in technology, largely due to fast, reliable broadband connections, and could affect growing foreign investment.

Christian Science Monitor

A ship dropped anchor off Mombasa, Kenya, and cut the Internet to six African countries earlier this week.

It will take three weeks to repair the damage. In the meantime, the Internet in Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Juba, the capital of South Sudan, is functioning at a reduced speed. It will impede the normal flow by about 20 percent, according to the BBC's Nairobi correspondent, Noel Mwakugu.

The Indian Ocean East Africa Marine Systems (TEAMS) cable, which connects East Africa to the United Arab Emirates, was severed when a ship dropped anchor in a restricted area – restricted because of the presence of the sea cabling. (See here for an interactive cable map.) The Teams cable was carrying redirected traffic from the earlier cutting of three other cables in the Red Sea, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The outage comes at a time when Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, has assumed a much greater profile as a center of technological innovation and entrepreneurship, largely due to the recent availability of fast, reliable broadband connections. These undersea fiber-optic cables, laid in 2009 and which connect Africa to the world, have kicked off Kenya's high-tech industry and prompted an increase in Kenyan Internet users from 1.8 million to 3.1 million in the first year.

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Bitenge Ndemo, Kenya's permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications, says that the cost of the internet outage could reach $500 million by the time repairs are finished. 

 "We do not have the cost yet but it runs into millions of dollars since TEAMS and EASSY carry almost 70 percent of the traffic from the East African Region," Mr. Ndemo told the Monitor. "Most providers had cut off satelite thinking we have sufficient redundany," Ndemo adds, and the Kenyan government has urged other new cable lines to land elsewhere to prevent future line cuts in the high-traffic sea-lanes outside Mombasa.

In the meantime, Kenya's losses have been significant. "There have been major disruptions and loss of revenue in the past few days," Ndemo says. "In my estimation we shall have lost up to $500 million by the time we are reconnected."

Jessica Colaço, the manager of iHub, a high-tech incubator in Nairobi, estimates that the cut in Internet service will affect an estimated 10,000 people in Nairobi who work in the tech industry. All of those people, along with larger companies who have started to locate in the city -- such as Google, Microsoft, and Samsung -- will suffer the frustration of a substantial slow-down until the cable is repaired.

In addition to work taking longer, and therefore costing more, a slowing in the rate of information carried online could also cause multiple websites and online services to "time out.” A time out is a limit on the duration allowed for an online instruction to be followed and is configured on a server-by-server or client-by-client basis. A time out will require a user to begin the process of retrieval again (and again). In many cases, users will never access the information at all, bringing work to a standstill for the duration of the repair.

“It is difficult to make an exact analysis [of the effects], because one cannot be sure about the amount of redundancy that is built into most of the operator networks to deal with something like this,” Paul Kukubo, CEO of Kenya’s ICT Board, said by email. “As we write this I am able to communicate because my service provider obviously has another network to route through.

“But the visible effects are that there has been a considerable slowdown on some Internet network speeds. Some service providers have been affected in terms of quality due to this, especially because the TEAMS networks provide high speed broadband that many have come to depend on. We have seen some slowdown on some government networks as well,” Mr. Kukubo said. “The providers assure us that this is a rare occurrence and because East Africa has 3 cable connections, and one was unaffected by the cut, we are lucky to have this redundancy on our undersea cables.”

Computer users are used to the Internet malfunctioning, of course. But for most, malfunctions rarely can be traced to a single act of negligence, or greed, by a named individual. The Mombasa anchor episode, in this sense, resembles an incident in which an Armenian retiree in the Caucasian nation of Georgia brought down the Internet. Hayastan Shakarian, a retiree living in Georgia, wound up cutting the connection to three Caucasian countries with a shovel while searching for copper wiring to steal in the hills.

As with the shovel incident, the Mombasa anchor incident is an unwelcome reminder that the high-minded world of technology remains vulnerable to physical human error. 

TEAMS is owned by the Kenyan government, in conjunction with Etelisat, an Emirati company. It was created as an alternative to the South Africa-owned EASSy, or East African Submarine Cable System.

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