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Updated Apr 2, 2020

As South Africa enters its fifth day of lockdown, residents confined to their homes noticed slower internet speeds and disruptions, after the West Africa Cable System (WACS) broke on Saturday, March 28. WACS is an undersea fiber-optic cable carrying data from the United Kingdom along the west coast of Africa. The break occurred about 24 miles (38 kilometers) off the coast of Great Britain, in roughly the same place the cable broke in January this year.

The disruption is the second one to strike South Africa after another cable, the South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable (SAT-3), went down on March 9. Repairs to SAT-3 are expected to be completed by Thursday, April 3, and to WACS by Saturday, April 4. Cable disruptions such as these exacerbate challenges of internet access for sub-Saharan Africans, who pay some of the highest rates for data and connectivity. Beyond South Africa, the WACS break is likely to upset internet services for Namibia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire as well.


Why It Matters

Africa’s particularly high rates for internet usage derive from cable infrastructure lacking greatly when compared with undersea cables linking the United States to Europe or ones that are operational in East Asia. To offset this, African internet service providers have to rely on satellite connections, which are far more expensive to use. The relatively low number of cables connected to Africa also means that when one breaks and requires repairs, the impact is felt much more acutely. These repeated failings reflect a need for African telecommunications carriers and their European partners to invest more heavily in Internet infrastructure, including undersea cables, as Internet connectivity has multiple benefits, including greater access to information—useful for democratic purposes as well as providing accurate weather information for farmers or market analytics for African entrepreneurs. Weak Internet connectivity is an obstacle to growth in many sectors in Africa.

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