By Macharia Kamau
A week that can pass as the most frustrating for local Internet users in the recent past brought to light the fragility of the Internet connectivity in the country, despite Internet increasingly becoming essential among many businesses.
The weeklong ‘Internet blackout’ also brought to fore arguments on whether Internet service providers need to retain satellite connectivity as a back up.
A significant number of local ISPs have in recent months discontinued use of satellite connection, ruling it out as an expensive and slow route. They have come to solely rely on the fibre optic cable networks, whose reliability is now under scrutiny.
The costly and snail paced option that is satellite came in handy, and even stole the show, after a major breakdown on an undersea cable that connects Internet users in the region to Europe through South East Asia. Following what Seacom referred to as a ‘shunt fault’ on the SEA-ME-WE 4 (SMW4) cable, many Internet users might be thinking that satellite might not be that bad, at least as a back up.
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While some ISPs were caught off guard, and their clients left to experience long Internet outages for the better part of the week, others said they had rerouted traffic to other networks – including satellite – to avoid the faulty cable that connects Asia to Europe through Mediterranean Sea.
"We have three different routes that do not use SMW4, one is from India onwards to the world using Tata’s network and another through our Tata point of presence (POP) in Kenya, which routes traffic through South Africa," said Jonathan Somen, managing director Access Kenya.
"We also have a backup capacity from Fujairah on TEAMS that has diverse paths and does not need to use SMW4… this interruption has had minimal impact on our business as we had already planned for such a contingency."
The company retired satellite connection towards end of last year, but says it is unlikely that its users would experience a total Internet ‘blackout’ in case one or more of the undersea fibre cable networks breaks down in future.
"The only impact may be that service is a bit slower as the routes to get to the destinations are longer and therefore the speed slows down, but far much faster than satellite… at certain times as was the case this time. There was congestion as users were directed to fibre networks that may not have the large capacity that SMW4 cable has," said Somen.
Another provider that said it had enough back up networks to reroute traffic without going the satellite way was Kenya Data Networks (KDN).
Vincent Wangombe, marketing manager KDN said the company had access to a redundancy route through TEAMS from Fujairah to Singapore, where users were able to access the international gate pass through South Asia.
"Through the use of TEAMS to Fujairah and from Fujairah to Singapore, we have an alternative route which enables our clients to be up when the Mediterranean Sea route is down," the manager added.
Safaricom was among those that had to reroute some of its traffic to satellite as one of its alternative arrangements to mitigate outage of services, while Seacom undertook repairs.
Chief Executive Michael Joseph said the firm had also rerouted its traffic through Asia to avoid the SMW4 faulty cable. He added that while it was costly retaining satellite connection, the firm had factored in risk in fibre and had seen it incur minimal losses last week.
Seacom had downplayed the repairs and expected them to be carried over the April 24 and 26 weekend, saying the actual work would last between five and six hours, but lasted the entire week.
Among the most dismayed are cyber cafÈ operators, especially those relying on one ISP, with some contemplating ditching their service providers and taking up services of those that were able to sustain connectivity, however slow, throughout the week.