Undersea cable rupture slows Africa’s internet for weeks

Telecoms providers scramble to repair a cable deep on the ocean floor

Today's expression: Slow to a crawl
Explore more: Lesson #235
February 20, 2020:

In late January, two of the biggest undersea cables serving Africa unexpectedly broke, resulting in slowed internet speeds for hundreds of millions of users across the continent. Turns out, the fiber-optic cables we rely on are just one-inch wide and are susceptible to breakages by both man-made and natural causes. Plus, learn the English phrase “slow to a crawl.”

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Two of the cables connecting Africa to the world broke—and slowed down the internet in 13 countries

Welcome back to Plain English; thanks for joining us this Thursday, February 20, 2020. I’m Jeff; JR, the producer, is with us too, behind the controls, and this is episode number 235, so check out PlainEnglish.com/235 for all today’s episode resources.

Coming up today: The ocean floor is crisscrossed with fiber-optic cables connecting the continents to one another. And two of the biggest cables serving Africa broke in January, slowing the internet for hundreds of millions of users. The expression today is “slow to a crawl;” you might be able to guess the context of that one. And JR has a song of the week. The video lesson today talks about how to identify an exception to a broad, general statement. What can you say when you want to make a generalization, but then identify an exception to the rule? That’s the topic of today’s video lesson at PlainEnglish.com/235.


Cable rupture slows internet in Africa

We don’t think too much about the inner workings of the internet, the basic plumbing that connects phones, computers and servers around the world—that is, until things go wrong.

About a dozen sub-Saharan African nations saw their internet service slow to a crawl in late January after two undersea cables serving the continent unexpectedly broke. The massive cables laid along the ocean floor connect Africa to servers in Europe and, by extension, to the rest of the world. The West Africa Cable System connects South Africa with London, with individual connections to the countries along Africa’s western coast, plus Portugal.

Cable breaks are a fact of life in the modern world and they vary in severity. This one was bad. A cable break between Europe and North America, for example, would only affect traffic going between the two continents. But Europe and North America have extensive networks of local servers and content that doesn’t need to cross the oceans, so the impact would be limited to intercontinental traffic. Africa is a different story. Because Africa doesn’t have as much internet infrastructure as, say, Europe or North America, a rupture in the undersea cables can have an out-sized impact on businesses and consumers, since so much data is needed from elsewhere.

The largest economy affected was South Africa, but 12 other countries including Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Cameroon were also affected. Internet users in some countries were unable to send simple e-mail messages; web browsing was heavily curtailed; and online banking transactions were interrupted.

Telecoms providers in Africa came under fire for the slow speeds, but there was little they could do. Local internet companies are reliant on the undersea cables for all their service; almost every provider in Africa was affected to one degree or another. Telecoms companies in each country typically lease capacity from much larger companies that own the interoceanic cables. Fortunately, local service providers also guard against outages by leasing backup capacity on other large cables—but the backup capacity is much less robust than the primary cable. Had the break occurred fifteen or twenty years ago, there would have been no backup and Africa might have been totally cut off from the global internet.

Cables can break for any number of reasons, most of them man-made. Fishing trawlers, which scrape the bottom of the sea, are a primary cause. Cables can break from ships dragging their anchors. They can simply malfunction as they reach the end of their useful lives. Or they can break as a result of natural causes.

In this case, two main cables serving Africa broke, both in the same geographic area, leading technicians to believe that the cause was natural, rather than man-made.

The breaks happened in the Congo Canyon, a massive underwater canyon near the mouth of the Congo River on Africa’s Atlantic coast. Repair of these cables is no easy task, as you might imagine. A repair ship first has to locate the break and mark the spot with a buoy, a floating marker in the ocean. They then drop a long cable with a claw on the end and try to reel up the first end of the broken cable—and then the second end. Teams onboard the ship repair the break, test it, seal it up again, and drop the cable down to the ocean floor. It takes several days just to locate the break, then a week or longer to make the repairs.

When repair crews examined the broken cables earlier this month, they saw they had been burned out—the result of a short-circuit. They identified two possibilities. Intense rains had caused the Congo River to flood in recent weeks; the flooded river deposited a mountain of sediment in the Atlantic, near the coast. Pressure on the cables from the sediment might have caused the cables to short-circuit. Scientists also identified a geothermal event—in other words, a small underwater volcanic eruption—in the area, which could have been the cause.

The first cable was repaired two days ahead of schedule, and high-speed service in Africa was partially restored.


Would you like to know a crazy fact? How thick do you think those cables have to be to carry all the internet traffic for an entire continent? I was picturing these massive cables, about as wide across as a person standing up. Just a huge, thick cable taking massive amounts of data. The diameter of a typical undersea cable is one inch! The cable coming into my house is like half an inch. But a one-inch cable carries the internet traffic for a continent. It’s crazy what they can fit on these fiber-optic lines.

Thanks so much to all of you who have taken our listener survey. If you haven’t had a chance to do that, and if you want your voice to be heard, then please visit PlainEnglish.com/Survey. It’s just a few questions, some where you just select an answer, but others are more open-ended, so you can practice your writing a little. I read every single response, and we’ve gotten hundreds of responses so far. So make your voice count in our listener survey, go to PlainEnglish.com/Survey.

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Expression: Slow to a crawl