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Ghana needs robust, resilient internet connectivity to avoid repeat of March 2024 service disruption

Ghana needs robust, resilient internet connectivity to avoid March 2024 service disruption

March 14th, 2024, saw a massive disruption of internet connectivity in several African countries. West Coast African countries affected include Ghana, , Cote d'Ivoire, and .
It was reported that the disruption was due to several submarine fibre optic cables being cut.
These cable systems are the West African Cable System (WACS), Main One, South Atlantic Telecommunications 3 (SAT 3), and ACE.
On May 13, 2024, Main One reported the successful completion of repairs and the full restoration of services on its cable.
The nearly eight-week mean time to repair and fully restore services highlights the vulnerability of critical submarine fibre optic cable infrastructure, which circumvents the continent and links it to the rest of the globe.

Reminiscence

It reminisces the early days of 2002, when Ghanaians engineered the first digital internet connectivity via the satellite earth station at Kuntunse for a palsy 64kbps data speed and an unimaginable $21,000.00 monthly fee.
User access to this shared bandwidth was via the then-fixed copper-based telephone line network and analogue dial-up modems.
Then, it was a constant challenge to provide access while offering shared access to 64kbps and, later, 128kbps internet bandwidth.
Today, internet access speeds on some smartphones exceed several megabits per second (Mbps).
At the time of the internet's emergence in Ghana, most could not have predicted its effect on how we access information, communicate, play, entertain, do business, and interact with our governments.
The struggle of providing access to internet users was hazardous at best.
From the early analogue dial-up modems to the implementation of various last-mile technologies via the Ghana Telecom copper cable-based telephone infrastructure, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) implementation challenges, legally contested anti-competition practises, frustrations of access limitations to copper lease lines and associated sudden overnight 1000 per cent increase in their monthly access fees were major concerns.
Point-to-point and or point-to-multipoint wireless systems deployment, WiMAX user access technologies, associated access frustration to GT towers, the regulator's incapacity and incapabilities to regulatable the industry, the emergence of fibre optic cables and digging rights of way, the politics of access to internet connectivity on the SAT 3 submarine cable, its outrageous pricing, are but a microcosm of the struggles and frustrations of the pioneers of internet service provision in Ghana.

Internet Today

From the early internet days, the early 1990s, when access was mainly for urgent email, browsing a few web pages, and using early search engines, today, internet access is ubiquitous over your smartphone or via fibre optic cable to the home (FTTH).
Today, internet traffic encompasses all converged communications, voice, video, and data.
Today, Internet usage encompasses casual web browsing and crucial commercial, business, entertainment, leisure and commercial gaming, and e-government applications and services.
Technologies, applications, and services include Virtual Private Networks (VPN), Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which transmits voice communications over the Internet, Cloud services (for data storage and software applications), Data centres (that house and host a multitude of servers and other network equipment for services such as email servers, web hosting, and online games), Content Delivery Networks (that deliver content quickly to global users), to today's integration of Artificial Intelligence into every aspect of technology and human endeavour.
Internet networks are now a critical infrastructure that underpins all Internet services.

Threat

This growing dependency on the internet as the sole technological platform for almost all human technology interactions means that any disruptions to its continuous availability highlight its critical and crucial importance.
The vulnerability, robustness, and resilience of the network infrastructure underpinning the internet are a grave threat to countries' , “a clear and present danger” threat to the wealth of nations and most rightly so! Any disruption is a catastrophic event.

As a result, more and more urgent and essential steps are being taken globally to build and maintain more robust, resilient, reliable, and secure internet infrastructure. The infrastructure that encompasses the African Continent and integrates seamlessly with other global internet networks no less.

Search for solutions

Government agencies at the highest levels are now conscious of the potential threat that internet disruptions pose and are reacting and participating in the search for solutions at the highest level.
In response to the March 2024 disruption, the Ghanaian regulator recently announced that all operators, including mobile network operators, Internet service providers, and cable service providers, met to discuss ways to mitigate the disruptions and restore services as soon as possible.
Indeed, governments and telecom regulators in other affected African countries are taking similar approaches to seek a collaborative solution to service disruptions in their respective countries.

Internet economy

In its e-Conomy Africa 2020 report, the IFC projects an African Internet economy of $180 billion.
Research shows a direct correlation between a country's GDP and internet access in Africa.
It's estimated that internet availability and usage positively impact GDP per Capita.
A 10 per cent increase in mobile Internet penetration can increase GDP per capita by 2.5 per cent in Africa compared to 2 per cent globally.

Ghana Internet Data

As of January 2024, statista.com reports Ghana's internet users population at 24 million, up from 23 million in January 2023, indicating a penetration rate of 71.94 per cent.
Furthermore, there are 6.6 million social media users as of January 2023.
The top 3 social media sites accessed were WhatsApp, Facebook, and Tic Toc. Mobile Internet traffic as of 2023 costs $0.73 per gigabyte.
The full impact on the country's GDP due to the March 2024 disruption may not be readily computable; however, disruptions to telecommunications affect several sectors of the economy, including government operations, businesses, and financial services.
Prolonged disruptions can, therefore, lead to significant economic losses.

Resilience needs

Therefore, governments, regulators, engineers, and operators must urgently address the need for a robustly secure, redundant, resilient, and self-healing solution that eliminates future disruptions to the provision of internet services in their respective countries, including Ghana.
Achieving such a goal requires infrastructure integration, critical advanced technology implementation, and enforcement by Africa-centric laws and legislation based on similar initiatives in the more advanced countries.
In this article, the writer seeks to highlight and explore useful technologies and make some critical recommendations towards achieving this objective.

Solution layers

In the quest for an engineered, robust internet network based on the vast submarine fibre optic cable resources already ringing the African continent, the solution must be immune from any single or multiple points of failure.
A robust, resilient continental internet infrastructure must be complemented by an even more robust in-country engineered infrastructure based on on-land FO cables and microwave radio systems.
That is the only way to ensure that the final last-mile access to the customer is free of disruptions.
Thus, three distinct interconnected solution layers are identifiable. These being:
I. The African continental infrastructure,
II. In-country infrastructure.

African Continental Infrastructure

1.1 Current links

Several multiple submarine Fiber Optic cable systems currently ring Africa.
The total inventory of operational fibre optic cables reached 1.8 million km, and the total inbound international Internet bandwidth reached 26.9 Terabits per second (Tbps) as of June 2021.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 16.6Tbps, with 91.7 per cent supplied directly via submarine FO cables.
North Africa accounts for the balance of 10.3 Tbps.
The usage recorded is still only a fraction of the total designed capacity of at least 406.5 Tbps available on the 31 submarine cable systems installed.
These figures are subject to rapid and significant change as several new cables are being installed today on the continent. (africanwirelesscomms.com)

Africa's current submarine FO cable systems map illustrates the geo routes and capacities.

Diagram 1: African Undersea Cables (2023)

These are generally in three major FO cable groupings: the West Coast, East Africa, and the Mediterranean (Northern Africa).
The map illustrates the key landing cities of the continent's multiple cable systems.
West Coast African cables generally terminate in Europe, , Sisymbria, and Penmarch.
East Coast cables terminate in the Middle East and Asia, in cities such as Karachi and Mumbai.
Mediterranean Cable systems link Asia, typically Karachi and Mumbai, to the east and European cities such as Marseille and Palermo to the west.

Cable Concentrations

An examination of Diagram 1: Africa Undersea Cable shows that most West Coast cable systems from Europe concentrate their landings in Lagos, Nigeria, Melkbosstrand, and Yzerfontein in South Africa.
However, Southern Africa terminated fibre cable from both the West Coast and East Coast of Africa, thus serving as a critical cross-connect between both cable systems.
The cross-connection remains crucial in engineering a more integrated, resilient, robust internet infrastructure for the continent.

Internet Provisioning

Almost all these fibre cable systems implement connectivity on a point-to-point basis, linking African cities individually via fibre optic cable pairs within the cable system to major global internet backbone infrastructure in these European cities.
Thus, , Lagos, on the SAT3 cable system, are linked via point-to-point cable pairs directly to the global internet Backbone located in Sisymbra, Portugal.
In other words, all internet traffic from Accra to Lagos, for instance, transits (routed) via Europe before arriving in Lagos.
A fibre pair cable within the SAT3 cable system originates from London and lands in Accra.
A redundant fibre optic cable pair continues from Accra to Lagos, Nigeria. That redundant fibre optic cable pairs from Accra to Lagos are usually not engineered to carry traffic.
As a result, any internet traffic from Accra headed to Lagos transitions to London before reaching Lagos, even though both Accra and Lagos are connected via the same SAT3 cable.

African Cites interconnect

Therefore, despite the many fibre cables, none appear to facilitate fibre pair links point-to-point between African cities.
This is typical for most of the cable systems that ring Africa.
This connection topology is crucial in understanding the reasons for the massive disruptions of March 2024, the difficulty in rerouting traffic onto alternative fibre cable systems, and the extended mean time to repair and restore service.

Ghana Experience

In the Ghanaian experience, the redundancy strategy for mobile network operators (MNO) and Internet service providers (ISP) was to connect to multiple alternative fibre optic cable systems available in Accra.
A case in point is , which utilised fibre systems from SAT3/WASC, MainOne, and WACS.
All these cable systems were terminated in Europe, either Sisymbra, Portugal, or London, UK.
This redundancy strategy was considered adequate since simultaneous cuts of all three fibre optic cable systems were impossible.
However, the events of March 2024 have shown that that scenario was no longer credible.
Notably, at least one MNO, AirtelTigo, was unaffected by the March 2024 disruptions. Its entire traffic is routed south towards SA via East African cable systems to the global internet as opposed to Europe, where the cable cuts occurred.
This can be understood because their previous parent company was Asia-based.

Diversity

Therefore, if the MNO's and ISP's redundancy strategy had dictated that at least one of the cables routed through SA to Asia, the cataclysmic disruption experienced by all the other significant MNOs would not have occurred or would have been minimised.
Examining the fibre optics cables that terminate in SA illustrates a diversified gateway redundancy strategy.
SA takes advantage of its geographical location to have fibre cable systems from both the West Coast, linked to Europe and the East African Cables, connected to the Middle East and Asia.
Therefore, in SA's case, if the cables from the West failed, the East was always available, and vice versa.
SubmarineNetworks.com states it perfectly when it writes “The SAT-3/WASC and the  Cable System (WACS) are most important international subsea cables in West Coast of Africa.
The WACS lands at the Yzerfontein CLS in Western Cape Town, the SAT-3/WASC lands at the Melkbosstrand CLS in Western Cape Town, South Africa, forming alternative gateways to South Africa.”

Multi-Gateway

The experience of AirtelTigo, which did not suffer the March 2024 service disruption, coupled with the diversified gateway redundancy strategy of the SA cable architecture, offers the best lessons in proposing a solution for greater internet service resilience, stability, and vulnerability elimination.
The functional key phrase is Diversified Multi-Gateway Redundancy Strategy.

Fail Proof Redundancy

A diversified multi-gateway redundancy strategy.
Cisco.com defines a multi-gateway setup as a network configuration with multiple exit points or gateways for the data to leave the local (in-country) network and reach other networks or the internet.
Besides redundancy and load balancing, multi-gateways' true benefit in this context is the policy-based routing of internet traffic via different connected FO cable systems.
For a typical MNO operating in Ghana, the imaginary, hypothetical operator called MNO-1, implementing the diversified multi-gateway redundancy strategy would first entail choosing FO cables that best deliver diversified terminations.
Thus, the fibre optic cables should typically terminate in Europe but also offer the capability to terminate in SA.
Further, the cable should provide terminations directly in the Americas.

Configuration

MNO-1's internet access architecture, described below, illustrates how a Fail-proof, redundant, resilient internet platform MAY be designed.
MNO-1 chooses three fibre optic cable systems in this configuration to implement its resilient, failproof internet connectivity and redundancy strategy.
The MNO-1 cables are:

  1. The WASC, 14.5-terabit bandwidth capacity
  2. The ACE cable, 40-terabit bandwidth capacity
  3. As the EQUIANO,144-terabits bandwidth OR the PanAfrican Cable system 2AFRICA, 180-terabits bandwidth.

WASC

WASC is the first cable. Configuration is as follows;

  1. Connect di-directionally on the WASC, terminating directly into London, routing internet traffic to Europe and, by extension, North America.
  2. On the same WASC, connect southbound to Yzerfontein, SA.
    In SA, the WASC is cross-connected to East Africa cable systems such as DARE1 or PEACE, each with a 60-terabit bandwidth capacity. SA proper, the Middle East, and the Asia-bound internet use this route.
  3. A third cable connection is possible on WASC, which links directly from Accra to Sangano, Angola.
    This facilitates a cross-connect to the SACS, a 40-terabit cable system that terminates in Brazil and the Americas.
    Thus, a diversified set of routed gateways is achieved on the single WASC: Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America.

ACE

ACE is the second fibre optic cable system deployed in the MNO-1 network architecture.
Similar to the WASC, it connects di-directionally, terminating in Penmarch, , and Melkbosstrand, South Africa, where it cross-connects with East Africa cable systems as described above.
Thus far, the MNO-1 network architecture results in 2 independent, mutually exclusive connections to Europe: London on WASC and Penmarch on ACE.
The SA x2 independent connection terminates at Yzerfontein for WASC and Melkbosstrand for the ACE cable.
The architecture includes a direct link to the American continent's internet backbone via Brazil.

EQUIANO/2AFRICA

MNO-1 may deploy connectivity to the latest, most advanced fibre optic cable systems, EQUIANO or 2AFRICA.
It must be observed that, in the MNO-1 network architecture, neither of the three fibre optic cable systems is set up in a primary and redundancy role.
All cable systems are at a PEER level, and routing algorithms or policy-based routing are implemented to route internet traffic automatically to their final destinations based on route efficiency.
Route efficiency is determined by route latency and hop count.
EQUIANO or 2AFRICA cable systems are the latest, newest, and most advanced cable systems circumventing the African Continent. While global tech giant Meta backs the 2AFRICA cable system, Google backs EQUIANO.
Their respective web pages state that these new cables deploy the latest technologies for submarine cable systems, such as Space-Division Multiplexing (SDM), Optical switching at the fibre-pair level, and branching Units for connectivity extension.
These technology features enhance capacity and flexibility, significantly advancing Africa's and global internet infrastructure.
Unfortunately, Ghana does not land the Equiano cable directly but via land-based fibre optic cables from Lome, . Research currently does not indicate whether 2AFRICA lands directly in Ghana.

Disruption Analysis

An analysis of the architecture and configuration above, in light of the March 2024 disruptions, would result in near-zero downtime for internet traffic.

March 2024 disruption scenarios would play out as follows. With both WASC and ACE cables cut towards Europe, Europe-bound traffic would reroute for both cables via SA cross-connecting to East African cable systems to the Global Internet, albeit with slightly higher latency and route hops.
All other traffic, i.e., SA, Middle East, and Asia internet traffic, would not be affected.

American-bound traffic would also not be affected, as it is routed to the Americans' backbone internet resources via Sangoro, Angola, which is cross-connected to Brail.
Similarly, should there be disruptions on the East Coast cable systems, Middle East and Asia traffic will be rerouted via the West Coast cable systems through the European internet backbone network.
So far, in this article, we have examined the African continental fibre optic cable systems, leveraging that to achieve a more robust, reliable, and resilient internet architecture for the Ghana-based hypothetical operator herein referred to as MNO-1.
Experts have examined the current redundancy configuration before the March 2024 disruption and illustrated the more resilient and technically superior multi-gateway routing architecture in contrast to the default single gateway routing, primary, and redundant cable configuration.
Of course, the Multi-Gateway architecture results in a much more complex implementation and programming of master border routers and switches. However, these complexities are quickly resolved using Cisco's AI tools set or similar tools.

Continental Perspective

The proposed hypothetical solution for MNO-1 will be typical for any operator in any other African country looking to implement a more robust, resilient, and failproof internet architecture for its people.
However, what is clear is the failure of the numerous fibre optic cable providers to facilitate direct connectivity between the various African countries where their cable terminates.
This situation is even more exasperating for landlocked countries.

Such connectivity guarantees resilient, robust internet to every single African country, facilitating seamless connectivity between each country without recourse to the global internet infrastructure.
An Africa-centric Internet infrastructure, hypothetically named RingAfrica-1.
Therefore, the push for better internet provision on the continent should be a fundamental pursuit of an Africa-centric organisation such as the African Union for all Africans.

Ghana Connectivity Resilience

In the second part of this article, we will examine the options available for engineering a more robust, resilient, and capable unified internet infrastructure for Ghana.

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