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A world without the Internet is unimaginable

As of December 2022, according to statistics from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), total fibre optics deployment across the country stood at 96,198 km (terrestrial fibre and submarine cable).

Since the fibre optic cables are laid under the ground, they are highly susceptible to cuts during road and other infrastructure constructions across the country.

Fibre optic network technology is generally accepted in the telecom sector because it is the fastest and most widely used medium of backhaul transmission that offers the required capacity and capability to meet the required telecoms needs of customers. It provides enhanced features and advantages that are superior to copper-based and wireless backhaul transmission options.

When this infrastructure is vandalised, it leads to low browsing/download speed, high drop call rate, low call setup success rate/congestion and voice quality degradation (clipping voice).

The Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) confirmed receiving reports of cuts on their fibre network of the MNOs arising from the action of contractors that have just moved to the site.

The Chairman of the group, Gbenga Adebayo said there were reports of multiple fibre cuts that took a toll on the integrity of the network. He said that the cut underscored the need for the Federal Government to quickly categorise telecom infrastructure as Critical National Infrastructure (CNI).

Also reacting to the network outage, Nigeria’s largest carrier, MTN had appealed for understanding to its 87,038,768 customers, representing 38.79 per cent of the total 224,713,710 subscribers, according to the Subscriber Data/Teledensity Data of January 2023 compiled by the NCC.

“Our customers have been experiencing challenges connecting to the network due to a major service outage caused by multiple fibre cuts affecting voice and data services. Our engineers are working hard to resolve the problem; with services gradually being restored in some areas.

“We apologise for the inconvenience and ask for your patience and understanding as the team works hard to restore full service as soon as possible,” a statement from the telco said.

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Also reacting, the Communication Lead at 9mobile, Chineze Amanfo said the telco has also received reports about cuts on its fibre optic cables, leading to subscribers’ nightmares on the network. Like MTN, she assured that services would be normalised as engineers were already on the field to fix the problem.

Just as the social and business communities were recovering from the disruptions to February 28 multiple terrestrial fibre cuts last week, another cable shock hit the country and some countries on the Continent. Most shocking was that it was the undersea cables that were adjudged most secure that experienced multiple major breaks. MainOne, SAT3, WACS and ACE were all breached; thus crippling internet connectivity in 13 African countries, including Nigeria, Cote d’ Ivoire, Liberia, Benin Republic, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo, Cameroon, Gabon, Namibia, Niger, Lesotho and parts of South Africa.

The cable outages are affecting several internet service providers (ISPs) and cloud service providers across the Continent, leaving them unconnected.

In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, Vodacom said: “Certain customers are currently experiencing intermittent connectivity issues due to multiple undersea cable failures affecting SA’s network providers, including us. We apologise for any inconvenience this might have caused our esteemed customers.”

The outage has also affected services such as Microsoft Azure and Office 365.

In a recent update, Microsoft said: “We have determined that multiple fibre cables on the West Coast of Africa—WACS, MainOne, SAT3, ACE—have been impacted which reduced total capacity supporting our regions in South Africa.

“In addition to these cable impacts, the ongoing cable cuts in the Red Sea—EIG, Seacom, AAE-1—are also impacting capacity on the East Coast of Africa. This combination of incidents has impacted all Africa capacity–including other cloud providers and public internet as well.”

Like the previous domestic terrestrial cable outage, MTN issued a statement explaining the cause of the downtime. The company said: “We apologise for the challenges you may be experiencing with internet speed and accessing data services at the moment.

“This is a result of damage to international undersea cables across East and West Africa. The repair process is ongoing to resolve the situation as soon as possible. Please, look out for further updates,” it stated.

Continuing, the statement said: “Starting at 10:30 UTC on March 14 2024, customers using Azure Services in South Africa, North and South Africa, West may experience increased network latency or packet drops when accessing their resources,” Microsoft had also explained on Azure status.

A major internet provider for most Nigerian banks and internet providers, MainOne also suffered a major fibre cut in Ghana that has knocked many major money deposit banks offline, according to internal communication sent to bank members of staff. As a result, customers of major Nigerian banks could not access their banking apps or use any Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) service.

Many customers confirmed they have been unable to use their banking apps or access the internet smoothly.

Sterling Bank, a Nigerian bank, has issued a communication to customers, informing them that some online banking activities have been “experiencing difficulties.”

Lemfi, an African remittance start-up had also informed customers that it is experiencing a downtime.

To underscore the severity of the connectivity outage, many shoppers who were used to using their automated teller machine (ATM) cards to pay for goods bought via Point of Sales (PoS) at popular shopping mall, Spar Stores at its Ilupeju outlet were disappointed as they were told to provide cash. Many left without shopping since the cable cuts had also hit their banking apps.

Many of the cable companies affected would have to pay their customers for downtime, in line with service level agreement (SLA). Nigeria’s MainOne has subsequently declared a Force Majeure, which might not extricate it from financial liability service outage.

The company said a Force Majeure event describes an activity beyond its reasonable control for example riots, and earthquakes among other catastrophes. Commercial contracts typically include such a clause which enables service providers to suspend contractual obligations for the duration of such disruptions.

“Nonetheless, we are working to provide restoration services to as many of our customers as possible, and to complete the repairs to the cable system in record time,” the company said.

It said it took action after testing of the cable system and when enough technical data from the preliminary assessment indicated some underwater activity was the likely cause.

MainOne, which had estimated the restoration timeline of the cable to between two and three weeks, said it has started the process of restoring services to some of its customers.

On what could have specifically caused the cable cuts, the company said most submarine cable faults occur as a result of human activities such as fishing and anchoring in shallow waters near shore, natural hazards such as earthquakes, landslides and then equipment failure.

“Given the distance from land and the cable depth of about 3 km at the point of fault, any kind of human activity – ship anchors, fishing, drilling and others has been immediately ruled out.

“Our preliminary analysis would suggest some form of seismic activity on the seabed resulted in a break to the cable, but we will obtain more data when the cable is retrieved during the repair exercise,” MainOne said.

On whether it was a deliberate sabotage, the company said it was most unlikely.

“Not likely, given the location and cable depth, and as indicated above, we have strong indications on probable cause,” the company said.

The cable company, in a note shared with The Nation, said: “We have restored services to some customers and are actively working on restoring services to others via capacity acquired on available cable systems. The estimated repair time is for our submarine cable fault to be fixed, to enable our services to become fully restored and independently supply capacity to our customers,” it said.

From the experience of several telecom subscribers during these severe multiple fibre optic breaks, it is clear that a world without internet is no longer imaginable because it has pulled down the fetters of distance and made the world truly a global village.

Submarine cable
Wikipedia described a submarine communications cable as a cable laid on the seabed between land-based stations to carry telecommunication signals across stretches of ocean and sea. The first submarine communications cables were laid beginning in the 1850s and carried telegraphy traffic, establishing the first instant telecommunications links between continents; such as the first transatlantic telegraph cable which became operational on August 16 1858.

Submarine cables first connected all the world’s continents (except Antarctica) when Java was connected to Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia, in 1871 in anticipation of the completion of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line in 1872, connecting to Adelaide, South Australia and thence to the rest of Australia.

Subsequent generations of cables carried telephone traffic, then data communications traffic. These early cables used copper wires in their cores, but modern cables use optical fibre technology to carry digital data, which includes telephone, Internet and private data traffic.

Modern cables are typically about 25 mm (1 in) in diameter and weigh around 1.4 tons per kilometre (2.5 short tons per mile; 2.2 long tons per mile) for the deep-sea sections which comprise the majority of the run, although larger and heavier cables are used for shallow-water sections near shore.

In Nigeria, there are now seven international submarine cables, with over 40 Tbps of capacity, including SAT3 cable, MainOne cable, Glo1 cable, ACE cable and WACS cable, landed by Natcom, MainOne, Glo 1, Dolphin Telecom and MTN respectively.

There is also a submarine cable connecting Kribi in Cameroon to Lagos in Nigeria, the Nigeria-Cameroon Submarine Cable System (NCSCS). The NCSCS is owned by Cameroon Telecommunications (CAMTEL), in a partnership with MainOne to land the NCSCS cable at MainOne’s Lagos Cable Landing Station.

Then, there is Google’s private cable Equiano and the 2Africa undersea cable by Facebook’s parent company.

According to the Association of Cable Operators of Nigeria (ASCON), Nigeria has used less than 10 per cent of its five submarine cables capacity as of early 2019.

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