Damaged Ocean Cable Cripples Internet In East Africa

In East Africa, the Internet has slowed to a crawl thanks to a disruption of the telecommunications pipeline serving the region. Over the weekend, a ship dragging an anchor severed one of the three undersea data cables linking countries that include Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia to the Middle East and Europe. It may take about three weeks to fix. Audie Cornish talks to Solomon Moore, East Africa correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In East Africa, Internet and telecommunications services have hit a snag - literally. A few days ago, a ship dragging its anchor severed an underwater fiber-optic cable carrying data from Kenya to United Arab Emirates. The result: Internet and mobile phone outages for people in more than half a dozen countries up and down the coast. And it's not the first time one of these data pipelines has taken a hit. Here to talk more about the incident and the underwater world of data is Solomon Moore. He's the East Africa correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He's based in Nairobi. Welcome to the program.

SOLOMON MOORE: Thank you.

CORNISH: What more can you tell us about what happened here?

MOORE: Kenyan officials say that a ship was dragging its anchor off the coast of Mombasa, Kenya, and severed an Internet and phone link that hits land at that point and then goes under the sea and connects Africa to the rest of the world via Internet and phone.

CORNISH: And I gather that this isn't the first time.

MOORE: This isn't the first time that a cable such as this has been cut, but what is unusual about this situation is that this particular cable - it's called the TEAMS cable. It's The East African Marine Systems. Internet traffic and phone traffic was being rerouted through this line because, 10 days earlier on February 17th, three other crucial cables were also severed in a different place off the coast of Djibouti.

CORNISH: This cable was just a few years old, but there are all kinds like it all over the world connecting places, you know, as far as New York and France, Colombia and Florida. Describe how these pipelines work, maybe what they look like.

MOORE: So these are not the kinds of cables that you'd see kind of lining the road. These are undersea cables. They're coiled in kind of a steel armor. They're fiber optic, each strand of fiber optic wire about the diameter of a human hair, and they're capable of carrying millions of phone calls and data connections at once.

And they're unspooled by cable ships across the ocean floor. The depth of these cables is the main thing that protects them, but also the armor that they're sheathed in.

CORNISH: Solomon, how has this affected life there? I mean, it seems to somehow showcase how fragile this infrastructure is.

MOORE: Well, you know, these things happen. I mean, cables have been severed before. When the tsunami hit Japan, that resulted in Internet cables being severed. It's disrupted a lot of commerce here. Africa is not as wired as many parts of the world, but more and more businesses are sprouting up. Some of the most prominent businesses on the continent are involved in eCommerce and rely on these Internet and phone connections for millions of links with the world outside of Africa and within the continent.

CORNISH: Lastly, how soon will this underwater cable be repaired? And how do they actually go about doing it?

MOORE: What we're being told is it's going to be three weeks of slow Internet, intermittent service, a lot of cost to businesses that need the Internet and these phone links. What that entails - the repair will entail ships going to these areas where the wires have been severed, submerging submarines, unmanned submarines, to go down and inspect these cables. Then submarines to bring them up to the surface, where they'll be reattached in a clean environment aboard these cable ships.

Then they'll be submerged again and, hopefully, everything will be back in working order in about three weeks' time.

CORNISH: Solomon Moore, thank you so much for talking with us.

MOORE: You're welcome.

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CORNISH: Solomon Moore is East Africa correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He's based in Nairobi.

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