June 1, 2013
When I discussed the reliability of optical fibre at an ICT event in Africa
, I was squawked at for the large number of fibre cable outages in Africa. I was told that fibre was less reliable than satellite because of the rampant fibre outages. Before we make hasty generalisations, and get too angry at fibre technology because of network outage, it is worthwhile to understand why there are so many cable cuts in Africa and how they can be mitigated.
Rampant network outages have been mostly caused by cable breaks both under sea and on land. Submarine cable cuts in Africa have mostly been caused by anchors being dragged by large vessels across the sea bed or near submarine landing points. Fishing and natural disasters have also been blamed for submarine cable damage in isolated cases. In terrestrial cable there is a myriad of causes of cable breaks, including road construction, vandalism and theft, bush fires and other natural disasters.
Most major submarine cables in Africa, SEACOM, SEA-ME-WE 4, Glo-1 and others, have been impacted by cable cuts. When a submarine cable is cut, it takes days to repair the damage and restore services. The network restoration time depends on the location of the repair ship at the time of the cut. If the ship is based in Cape Town, South Africa, for example, and a cable cut happens in Mombasa, Kenya, the transit time from South Africa to Kenya will have a profound impact on the network restoration time.
To minimise rampant submarine cable cuts, governments should step in and help protect submarine cable routes from the shipping industry by instituting appropriate and tough regulation. Those who violate the regulations and cause cable damage should be heavily fined or imprisoned. In Australia, for example, violators can be fined over $300 000 or imprisoned for ten years. This is a fitting punishment for actions that can losses of millions of dollars in lost revenue and the cost of cable repair. It is also important that operators and governments educate the shipping industry on the economic impact of damaging cable and the dangers of dragging anchors along the oceans.
While we are at it, it is also interesting to point out that submarine cables have been damaged by sharks off the coast of South Africa in the past. We now understand that the electric current transmitted in the submarine cables to power amplifiers and repeaters generate electromagnetic patterns around the cable that irritates the sharks. At least some steps have been taken to shield the cables and to minimise the impact.
Incidences of terrestrial cable cuts in Africa tend to be much higher than elsewhere in the world. In Kenya, Nigeria and other countries, road construction along cable routes has been mostly blamed for damage to cable. Without taking any steps to determine if and where cable is installed, government contractors dig along roads pulling out cable and trashing it. This also causes huge losses in revenue due to network down time and in cable repair costs.
It does not require rocket science to come up with a plan to minimise downtime caused by new road constructions. Government departments have to plan their road construction with cable owners so that cable owners can come up with solid plans to rehabilitate their cables. But the onus is on operators to educate relevant government departments to take ICT infrastructure more seriously and plan to engage operators before digging along roads.
As the public becomes more and more aware that most cables being installed in the metro and long distance today are fibre optics, and not, copper cable theft in Africa
will subside. There is a case in Kenya where cable thieves stole a piece of cable, took it to a nearby bush, and set it on fire to burn the cabling material to expose what they thought was copper. They must have been surprised to notice the entire cable burning away without any signs of copper. No cable theft has since been reported along that route. However, there are less destructive means of educating the public about the type of cable installed in any given routes. Clear “Fibre Optic Cable” signs on strategic points will go a long way to deter thieves from stealing fibre cable.
While there are mechanisms in place to reduce cable cuts, as a rule of thumb, operators and service providers should always use diverse links on geographically disperse routes for redundancy. It may not help much to have the redundancy on cables along the same routes because they can both the damaged at the same time.