It's time to get Africa properly cabled up, says Facebook
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It's time to get Africa properly cabled up, says Facebook

For most users in developed nations, the story of the internet has been the story of our own better connection to it: often first at the office, then at home, then mobile. Many of us can still recall dial-up access at less than 56 kilobits per second via landline. Longtime early-adopter nerds will also recall the paralysingly slow 9600 bps that could be obtained, with great difficulty, in the early days of GSM mobile data.

But the problem was almost always one's own connection. The internet beyond the ISP, for developed-world users, has always appeared to be almost magical: huge capacity, global reach, generally low latency and quite reliable, seamlessly reaching across seas and oceans to span the world.

Nowadays most of this magical wider network consists of optical fibres. If the data packets need to travel at all far, very often the fibres will be running through submarine cables on the sea bed. This may well be true even when sending packets on overland journeys across developed continents: there is a chain of dedicated undersea cables between Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, for example. There are three US-to-US cables on the Pacific coast. Fully 99 per cent of all data which actually crosses oceans or seas is carried by submarine cable. In a very real sense, undersea fibre is the backbone of the world's internet.

These submarine cables routinely suffer damage from seismic events, fishing gear, ship's anchors or other causes. This is rarely even noticed in the developed world, as it will normally be a simple matter to send traffic via alternative routes. As an example, there are no fewer than 15 cables linking Europe to North America, with another due to come online this year.

In the developing world there are normally fewer lines which can be used. This isn't always a problem in terms of capacity, as submarine cables have enormous bandwidth: so much as to be measured in terabits per second. However the lack of redundancy can have severe consequences: in 2005 the SEA-ME-WE 3 cable became unserviceable south of Karachi and effectively cut Pakistan off from the internet, as well as disrupting almost all other communication with the outside world. In 2008, two breaks caused by a ship's anchor in the Mediterranean led to massive disruption for internet users across the Middle East and India. This latter incident gained visibility worldwide, causing media to begin reporting cable breaks that would never normally have drawn attention: this syndrome has since died down, but conspiracy theories still circulate regarding cable breaks that year.

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Lewis Page

Lewis Page has been writing about technology across various industry sectors since the early noughties. He has a degree in engineering and is based in London.

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