Underwater data cables linking East Africa to the Middle East and Europe have been severed, bringing transfer rates to their knees in nine countries.
In a bizarre coincidence, a ship allegedly dropped anchor off the coast of Kenya on Saturday in a restricted area, cutting The East African Marine Systems (TEAMS) cable - shortly after three other cables were chopped in the Red Sea between Djibouti and the Middle East, the Wall Street Journal reported.
TEAMS was already stuffed with the traffic from the other three cables, the Europe India Gateway (EIG), the South East Asia Middle East Western Europe-3 (SMW-3) and the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSY), which were severed ten days before.
"It's a very unusual situation," Chris Wood, chief executive of West Indian Ocean Cable, the largest shareholder of the EASSY, and a major owner of data-capacity rights on the two other Red Sea cables. "I believe these were accidental incidents, although more will be known when we bring the cables up from the sea bed."
Naturally, the number of cables ruined in a short timeframe has sparked suspicions of sabotage. A source from African carrier Airtel told Ugandan independent newspaper the Daily Monitor that the cables had been sliced on purpose.
"The EASSY and TEAMS cables were cut by malicious people at the weekend and this is causing connection problems. All internet providers, particularly Orange and Airtel have been affected because they all depend on these cables for service provision,” he said.
Wood told the WSJ that the cables in the Red Sea had all been severed at the same time, around 650 feet below the Red Sea, but he said that a passing ship could have done the damage because the sea is so shallow.
He added that these cables should be fixed in the next three weeks.
Joel Tanui, general manager of the TEAMS cable, gave the same timescale for fixes to that cable.
"We wish to notify all our stakeholders of ongoing emergency repair works and apologise unreservedly for any inconvenience this may cause," he said. "The cable should be fully operational within the next three weeks."
The first undersea cables for the region went live in 2009 and since then mobile services and e-commerce have increased hugely as internet subscriptions leapt.
Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Ethiopia are among the countries hit by the outage. ®