The mysteries of the submarine cables that connect us to the rest of the world

You may have been wondering why the international internet connection from South Africa to the rest of the world is a little slower than normal. You may also have experienced delays and ‘issues’ with Google and Gmail and all those essential online functions to which we have become so accustomed.

The reason for this is that the SEACOM submarine fibre-optic cable, which connects eastern and southern Africa to India as well as to Europe (see Wikipedia), has “experienced a submarine failure”.

I was quite clueless as to what that meant, and promptly went a-Googling.

Honestly, I hadn’t given much thought to the actual mechanics of connecting to the internet. All I see at my end is my computer, my router and my pots filter, which allows me to use the telephone while also being connected to the internet.

I can even follow the telephone wires from our roof all the way across our back garden, between the branches of our large Rhus tree, and to a tall post in our rear neighbours’ back garden, where they join several other black cables.

But what happens from there?

I suspect that my little black cable connects to an ADSL line somewhere, and I assume that this connects to a fibre optic cable, as Neotel has just spent the last few weeks digging trenches more or less along the entire length of Forest Drive, in order to bury rolls and rolls of bright orange cable. But who knows?

The rest is a mystery.

I guessed that there had to be cables running from South Africa to Europe, the USA and Asia, but really hadn’t given it much thought.

Seacom cable connecting Western and Southern Africa to India and Europe (Wikipedia image)

When I open my Mozilla Firefox and connect to the internet, when I download my email, and when I upload a post to my blog, it is all based on trust, on the blind faith that there are intelligent technicians and software writers out there who make all this possible.

So when I read the notice that my local service provider, Cybersmart, forwarded to its subscribers, it suddenly hit me that there are in fact undersea cablesand that these can break down from time to time!

“SEACOM experienced a submarine failure resulting in service downtime between Mumbai and Mombasa. Current investigations indicate that a repeater has failed on segment 9 of the SEACOM cable, which is offshore to the north of Mombasa. This unexpected failure affects traffic towards both India and Europe.

SEACOM has initiated emergency repair procedures to replace the repeater. Once mobilized, the repair ship is deployed to the location of the fault to pick up the cable. The cable is then brought on board to undergo the repair; the faulty element is replaced with a new repeater – before being put back in the water.

Whilst the repair process itself will only take a few hours, the overall process may last a minimum of 6-8 days. The actual duration is unpredictable due to external factors such as transit time of the ship, weather conditions and time to locate the cable. For this reason, the estimated duration of this repair remains uncertain.

SEACOM, in co-operation with individual clients, is actively seeking alternatives to restore service whilst the repairs are undertaken.”

As a result, Cybersmart have been re-routing traffic via the SAT-3/WASC cable (an acronym for the South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable). This links Portugal and Spain to South Africa, with several connections to West African countries en route.

At Melkbosstrand (?! on the West Coast – isn’t that amazing? Not Cape Town, but a tiny coastal town further north?!), this cable comes ashore, and connects via the SAFE cable to Asia.

SAT3, WASC and SAFE cables between Europe, Africa and Asia (Wikipedia image)

There is also a WACS (West African Cable System), but this has not yet been completed; it is due to be commissioned by next year (2011). It will provide a fast international internet connection between South Africa and the United Kingdom, landing in several west African countries along the way.

I was particularly interested to read that “The landings in Namibia, the DRC, the Republic of Congo and Togo will provide the first direct connections for these countries to the global submarine cable network.” (Wikipedia)

That is wonderful news! Perhaps we will finally be able to Skype properly with our families and loved ones in Namibia! 🙂

Anyhow, I just thought this was quite fascinating, and I wanted to share it with you.

2 thoughts on “The mysteries of the submarine cables that connect us to the rest of the world

  1. It is fascinating and the whole of civilization is now dependent upon keeping the infra-structure in place. You have highlighted a very real episode in the nature of modernity. This is a delicate balance for all of the society! I am now having my morning coffee and an apple and cookies and getting ready to see my first patient, Regg what a wonderful piece! This should be on I-African news. Do you watch or listen to them? A+ for the piece. Calling Dana now to have her read this…yours in good mental health!

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