Telecom Heroics in Somalia

Doug Madory
Director of Internet Analysis

Internet service in and around Mogadishu, Somalia suffered a crippling blow recently as the East African Submarine System (EASSy) cable, which provides service to the area, was cut by the anchor of a passing ship.  The government of Somalia estimated that the impact of the submarine cable cut was US$10 million per day and detained the MSC Alice, the cargo vessel that reportedly caused the damage.

The cable was repaired on 17 July. The incident is the latest in a series of recent submarine cable breaks (see Nigeria, Ecuador, Congo-Brazzaville and Vietnam) that remind us how dependent much of the world remains on a limited set of physical connections which maintain connectivity to the global Internet.

Internet in Mogadishu

 

The story of how high-speed Internet service came to Mogadishu is nothing short of remarkable.  It involved Somali telecommunications personnel staring down the threat of a local terrorist group (Al-Shabaab) in order to establish Somalia’s first submarine cable connection.  This submarine cable link would be vital if Mogadishu were to have any hope of improving its local economy and ending decades of violence and hunger.  However, in January 2014, Al-Shabaab announced a prohibition against ‘mobile Internet service’ and ‘fiber optic cables’ stating,

Any individual or company that is found not following the order will be considered to be working with the enemy and they will be dealt with in accordance with Sharia law.

The government of Somalia urged its telecoms not to comply with the Al-Shabaab ban.  Then in February 2014, technicians from Somalia’s largest operator Hormuud Telecom were forced at gunpoint by Al-Shabaab militants to disable their mobile Internet service.

At that time, Internet service in Mogadishu was entirely reliant on bulk satellite service, which has limited capacity and suffers from high latency when compared to submarine cable or terrestrial fiber-based service.  Liquid Telecom’s terrestrial service to Mogadishu wouldn’t become active until December 2014 and the semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland in the northern part of the country use terrestrial connections to Djibouti for international access.

Despite the threats from Al-Shabaab, Hormuud Telecom elected to press ahead with its planned activation of new service via submarine cable that would be crucial for development of Mogadishu’s economy.

The graphic below shows a dramatic drop in latencies as Hormuud Telecom shifted its transit from satellite to submarine cable.  Hormuud passed traffic across the cable for a little more than an hour on 18 February 2014, starting at 21:05 UTC.  It then shifted traffic again at 20:07 UTC on 20 February for about 12 hours before committing to the new cable for good at 17:17 UTC on 21 February.

 

Immediately following the activation, I drafted a blog post (as I had done in the cases of Cuba and Crimea) heralding the EASSy subsea cable activation in Mogadishu as a great milestone for the troubled region.  However, at the request of the leadership of WIOCC, the company that owns the EASSy cable, we refrained from publication.  The primary concern at the time was the safety of the hostages Al-Shabaab had recently taken when they raided a Hormuud Telecom office in the Jilib district.  We agreed not to publish the blog post so as not to draw additional publicity to Hormuud’s defiance of Al-Shabaab, which could have put those Hormuud employees at risk. Now, 3.5 years later, the fact that telecoms in Somalia use the EASSy cable to connect is no secret.

January 2017 Outage

Somalia held a presidential election earlier this year and as the candidates were getting ready for their first nationally televised debate, the country’s primary link to the global Internet went out. Many Somalis were understandably concerned:

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