SUBMARINE CABLES: The need to ensure robust protection and resilience framework for Ghana

Source The Ghana Report

Ghana was on March 14, 2024, hit by a sudden internet blackout, plunging the country into chaos, and bringing it home forcefully to everybody, the nation’s dependence on fragile undersea cables. The outage, caused by damaged undersea cables near Côte d’Ivoire, left in excess of 70% of the population without internet service for days.

Daily life ground to a halt as essential services like banking, transportation, and communication became simply inaccessible.

This incident exposed the vulnerability of Ghana’s internet infrastructure and the effects of the disruption were far-reaching, enormous and telling. The economic impact was huge, given the telecommunication sector’s substantial contribution to the government’s revenue.

What happened raised serious concerns about national security and this underlines the urgent need to get our acts right and do everything to protect the submarine cable network. Collaborative efforts and strategic investments are required to ensure the resilience and security of this vital infrastructure, to prevent future outages that could cripple the nation.


Vital Submarine Cable Network Underpins Global Connectivity

These submarine cables carry 97% of global internet traffic, connecting continents and enabling communication, commerce, and innovation. Often overlooked, their importance is undeniable – a single cable disruption can cripple entire nations, as Ghana recently experienced.

The construction of these submarine cables is primarily financed by telecom firms and tech giants like Google with governments playing less active role due to the high costs and private ownership. The global submarine cable network, which began in the late 19th century, has evolved significantly, with fiber-optic cables becoming dominant since the late 1980s.

West Africa boasts of several submarine cable networks, which enable internet connectivity. The main ones serving Ghana include the West Africa Cable System (WACS), the South Atlantic-3/West Africa Submarine Cable (SAT-3/WASC), which links South Africa to Europe via West Africa, the MainOne network, connecting Nigeria, Ghana, Cote D’ Ivoire and the African Coast to Europe (ACE) cable network. ACE links Portugal to the West African coast, encompassing countries like Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal. These cables are part of those that got affected and resulted in the recent internet disruption.


Safety & Security Of Submarine Cables

Submarine cables face various threats to their safety and security. These include accidental damage, resulting from fishing trawlers dragging nets along the seafloor, anchor drops from large vessels, construction or repair work near landing sites, and underwater natural disasters like earthquakes and turbidity currents. Deliberate acts of sabotage, terrorism and extortion are the other threats.

The threat profile is summarized below:

Accidental damage – Could result from fishing vessels, shipping, oil and gas activities, seabed mining or close coast activities such as construction.

Criminal negligence: Willful failure to read navigational charts resulting in damages to cables.

Corporate sabotage: Attempting to undermine a company with an interest in a cable system.

Extortion: Threatening cable interruption, damage or severing just to extort money from either the government or an interested private stakeholder.

Precursor Attacks: To cause chaos and take down communication capabilities in advance of a further attack.

Terrorism: Destruction of cables for terrorist motivations.


Statistically, fishing vessels pose the greatest threat to submarine cables because of their trawl operations. About 50-100 incidents of disruptions are associated with fishing vessels. This is particularly, a major threat in West Africa, given the prevalence of fishing vessels in the region and trawling activities. Also high in the threat profile of the region is offshore oil and gas seismic activities. Proper monitoring and repair capabilities are therefore needed to effectively deal with them.


Legal and Regulatory Framework

The recent uncomfortable experience of internet connectivity outage in West Africa proves how critical the legal and regulatory framework governing submarine cables is. Submarine cables traverse both international waters and national maritime zones and therefore a complex set of global and local laws apply.

The 1884 Telegraph Convention and UNCLOS provide the overarching legal regime.

UNCLOS grants states the freedom to lay cables in international waters, the high seas, and exclusive economic zones, though there may be requirements for coastal state’s consent. In territorial waters, states have sovereignty and can require authorization for cable laying.

However, UNCLOS focuses more on rights than protection, so the 1884 Convention and bodies like the ITU, ICPC, and ISO play important roles in establishing technical standards and best practices. In Ghana, the NCA and Ministry of Communications regulate submarine cables, though national laws provide limited guidance on their security and safety.


Protecting Ghana’s Internet Lifeline: A Call to Action

The March 14 experience – the discomfort and disruption of our life by the internet outage should be a wake-up call to Ghana and other West African countries to prioritize the protection of submarine cables. It cannot be business as usual. There need to be comprehensive legislation, regular inspections, coastal surveillance, and regional collaboration. Proactive measures, including mapping infrastructure, diversifying routes, and sustained education of stakeholders, are vital to build resilience and safeguard internet connectivity across the region. Ghana’s Ministry of Communication and NCA must lead in developing a robust protection and resilience framework, both nationally and regionally.


The writer is the Executive Director of Centre for Maritime Law and Security Africa


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