Wreck of undersea cables shows the backhoe isn't the only natural enemy of the Internet

Ships with dragging anchors may have killed the Internet for East Africa, Middle East

The Internet is a miracle of technology, information, interpersonal communications and logistics. Underneath all the wonder and money and freedom and intrusion what the Internet really is becomes a hard reality. Not cyberspace or the cloud or virtual worlds or anything else gassy and imaginative.

Underneath all the other imagery, the Internet is a tangle of cables emerging from the back of a server chassis in the IT department at your office, squirming into the wall, out to the street and around the world.

The Internet, more than anything else, is a cable stretching, with some interruptions, from your computer all the way around the planet and back to your computer.

Making that trip is more complex and dangerous than you'd think, though. For a good part of its run, the Internet lies not in cyberspace, but at the bottom of the ocean, lived on and listened to by things that have evolved without eyes but can feel the minute electrical charges firing the muscles of its prey from tens of yards away.

On land the greatest natural enemy of the Internet is the backhoe, which digs up and breaks fiber and copper wires with appalling frequency and frustrating ease.

Under the ocean the Internet has no natural enemies, or shouldn't.

Though it stays safe all through the permanent darkness of the deepest, coldest water, the armored, waterproof wrap protecting the Internet begins to look vulnerable again as it approaches the surface, where things more frightening than monstrous squid, albino crawlies and giant-toothed horrors never go.

There, in the shallows, even in waters where it should be under protection, the Internet is vulnerable – to heavy trash thrown overboard or ships or barges running too deep.

Among the greatest dangers, it turns out, anchors being dropped in the wrong place and dragged along the bottom where they can snag strand after strand of cable, cutting off the Internet to whole countries, whole chunks of continent before the anchors are stopped.

That's what happened Saturday off the coast of Kenya on the East Coast of Africa, just south of Somalia, where a ship near the port of Mombasa dropped anchor in a restricted area, then dragged that anchor across the East African Marine Systems (TEAMS) high-capacity fiberoptic cable, which was already doing double-duty, carrying traffic rerouted from breaks in three other major cables.

(There is a cool interactive map here showing the routes and names of the undersea cables. Look on the list at the right for The East African Marine Systems (TEAMS) off the coast of Kenya. Tt the Red Sea, look for the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System, Europe India Gateway (EIG) and the South East Asia Middle East Western Europe-3 (SMW-3).)

It's not clear what severed those three cables, which lie in 650 feet of water in the narrow strait near the mouth of the Red Sea, where they run between the tiny port country of Djibouti on the African coast to the West and the deserts of Yemen and Saudi Arabia to the East.

The severed cables cut off Internet access to at least nine countries, from Zimbabwe to Djibouti as well as severing major trunk lines connecting Easter and Western Europe to Africa, India and the Middle East, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Red Sea cables were severed all at the same time, possibly by a passing ship, though there will be no evidence to confirm or deny that until the cables are raised from the ocean bottom, according to a spokesperson for the cable's owners.

Outside Mombasa the culprit was definitely a ship anchor, but that doesn’t make it any easier to repair.

Both the Red Sea and Kenya cables will be out for about three weeks, leaving locals with less access to the rest of the world and greater suspicion that the outages are the result of sabotage rather than accidents.

One sourced did tell a Ugandan newspaper the cables were cut on purpose.

There is no evidence to raise suspicion of anything but a pair of accidents involving passing ships, however, as far as the owners of either cable is willing to say.

Repairs will be slow due to the difficulties of working at depths that are shallow in comparison to the ocean but far too deep for human divers or even most subs.

Repairs will be carried out using remote-controlled robotic subs controlled from ships on the surface.

The undersea cables were installed in 2009, dramatically increasing bandwidth and access to on both sides of the Red Sea, sparking what the WSJ called an explosion in e-commerce in the area.

Until the cables are repaired, those businesses are back to using narrower-bandwidth connections across phone lines, satellite and wireless hookups.

Insider: How the basic tech behind the Internet works
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies