Undersea cable breaks plunge South Africa into internet chaos: Weeks of slowdowns ahead

Internet speeds in South Africa have been severely disrupted due to undersea cable breaks in the WACS and SAT-3 subsea cables, caused by a rock fall in the Congo Canyon. These cables are crucial for connecting South Africa to the rest of the African continent and Europe. The disruption has particularly affected online services reliant on local content delivery nodes, including video streaming platforms like YouTube, Netflix, and Disney+, as well as social networks like Facebook and Instagram. Cloudflare, a major internet infrastructure company, has been rerouting traffic to mitigate the impact, but congestion and slower website performance are expected as repairs are estimated to take several weeks.

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Undersea cable breaks wreak havoc on South Africa’s Internet

By Jan Vermeulen

Internet speeds in South Africa have taken a beating after a rock fall in the Congo Canyon broke the WACS and SAT–3 subsea cables.

The West Africa Cable System (WACS) and South Atlantic 3 (SAT–3) cable are two of several West-coast cables that connect South Africa to the rest of the African continent and Europe.

While the breaks are causing problems for Internet service providers (ISPs) who rely on either cable for international connectivity, South Africans are probably most keenly feeling the disruption elsewhere.

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That’s because much of the content Internet users in South Africa access is stored locally nowadays.

Video streaming services like YouTube, Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video all have local content delivery nodes.

Some operate their own content delivery networks, while others use third parties like Akamai.

Similarly, social networks like Facebook and Instagram cache content on local servers.

Many websites also use Cloudflare to defend against distributed denial-of-service attacks, which also offers caching and local content delivery.

The increasing use of caching and content delivery networks, and Teraco-owned NAPAfrica’s push for free peering in South Africa is part of the reason fast, uncapped broadband became affordable.

However, even though local ISPs no longer have to spend as much money on international transit, global content providers still need capacity on these cables to send content to their local servers.

Depending on how their networks are designed, a break in a major undersea cable like WACS could be extremely disruptive.

This is even though South Africa has many more cables landing on its shores nowadays, including the massive Google-owned Equiano and Facebook-backed 2Africa cables.

That’s because buying redundant capacity on such cables is expensive and typically involves signing long-term contracts.

Stated differently — the problems South Africans are experiencing with their Internet connections currently are not due to technical limitations, but financial ones.

For example, Disney+ subscribers are reporting that the service becomes unusable in the late afternoons and evenings.

Disney+ relies on Akamai NetStorage to host its content locally.

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Testing by MyBroadband showed that during most of the day, Disney+ video traffic is routed to a server in Johannesburg when accessing it from a Gauteng location.

However, during evening peaks, traffic is rerouted to an international location.

MyBroadband contacted Disney and Akamai about the issue and did not receive a response by publication.

Cloudflare also experienced problems on Monday, which it says it has resolved.

While the Cloudflare status page still shows traffic to its South African nodes as being rerouted, a spokesperson for the company told MyBroadband that this doesn’t reflect what’s actually going on.

“We never rerouted all of our South African nodes,” Cloudflare told MyBroadband.

“Specifically, we are mitigating issues occurring from the WACS cable break by routing around it. The reason why South Africa seems rerouted is due to a quirk in our status page.”

Cloudflare status page on 10 August 2023

Cloudflare said it uses various connectivity options to ensure it is resilient against hiccups in the Internet ecosystem.

It confirmed seeing severe service degradation due to the WACS break on Monday.

“It took our engineering team some time to restore our connectivity to the wider Internet, but we were successful in doing so,” Cloudflare said.

“As all South African networks are currently experiencing a crunch in capacity due to this cut, we saw an increase in traffic, which took some time to mitigate.”

Asked what kind of impact South Africans would continue to see due to the cable breaks, Cloudflare said there would be increased congestion on international links.

“Most websites that don’t use a platform like Cloudflare are hosted in Europe or the US,” the spokesperson said.

They said that due to the cable cut, the international capacity available for Africa to go to Europe or the US is significantly reduced, causing congestion in these upstream networks.

“This will make websites feel slower, or just not work at all,” Cloudflare explained.

“Networks are actively working on bringing up new capacity to deal with the cut, while work is underway to repair the break, which may take weeks to repair.”

Another service that has been affected is Discord, a social networking application that lets users create communities with chat rooms for voice, text, and video communication.

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Discord’s upstream provider is Ubisoft-owned i3D, which reported that the WACS break impacted connectivity between its Madrid and Johannesburg data centres.

MyBroadband’s testing showed that although Discord’s voice services still worked from South Africa, users were being allocated to servers in Madrid, Spain, rather than ones hosted at Teraco’s data centre in Johannesburg.

Liquid Intelligent Technologies announced on Thursday that its Liquid Dataport business saw a surge of Internet traffic on Equiano. It acquired a fibre pair on the cable from Google in 2022.

Léon Thévenin cable repair ship

Long wait for repairs

While the cable-laying ship Léon Thévenin has been mobilised for deep water repair, it will be more than a month before WACS and SAT–3 will be fixed.

MarineTraffic reports the ship landed in Mombasa, Kenya on Sunday after a 10-day voyage from Cape Town.

It was still anchored there on Thursday and is scheduled to execute repairs on another subsea cable system before returning to South Africa.

The Léon Thévenin is estimated to reach the site of the WACS fault anywhere during the first three weeks of September, subject to weather conditions.

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This article was first published by MyBroadband and was was republished with permission