Zimbabweans lost internet access en masse on Tuesday when a tractor reportedly cut through key fiber-optic cables in South Africa and another internet provider experienced simultaneous issues with its primary internet conduits. The outage began shortly before noon local time and persisted for more than five hours, affecting not only citizens’ day-to-day internet usage but businesses that rely upon web access. And while five internet-free hours might sound unfathomable to those of us accustomed to having the web constantly at our fingertips, large-scale internet outages—from inadvertent lapses caused by ship anchors to government-calculated blackouts designed to showcase political power—do happen, and maybe more frequently than you’d thought.
According to local news sources, a tractor in South Africa damaged cables belonging to Liquid Telecom, which has an 81.5 percent market share of Zimbabwe’s international-equipped internet bandwidth as of the second quarter of 2017 and leases capacity to other internet providers. In a bad coincidence, city council employees in Kuwadzana, a suburb of Zimbabwe’s capitol city of Harare, cut an additional TelOne cable around the same time. (According to NewsDay Zimbabwe, it was an accident. The company blamed “faults that occurred on our main links through South Africa and Botswana” in a statement.)
While a TelOne backup link through Mozambique remained intact, it couldn’t make up for the lost bandwidth. Together, Liquid Telecom and TelOne account for 96.5 percent of the market share of international-equipped internet bandwidth in Zimbabwe, so their cable struggles amounted to a country-wide problem. A graph of internet activity in Zimbabwe provided to Slate by content delivery network Akamai shows a precipitous drop midday Tuesday to levels normally only seen during the wee hours of the night.
And the cable-slicing didn’t only affect the internet: South African news site Fin24 reported that the outage had also affected phone service and access to social media applications like WhatsApp.
We apologise to affected customers in Zimbabwe, Zambia and parts of DRC for the unexpected interruption of our internet service. This was due to cuts on primary and secondary fibre routes near the South Africa Zimbabwe border. Both fibre breaks are fixed and now back in service.— Liquid Telecom (@liquidtelecom) December 5, 2017
“This should not happen,” Supa Mandiwanzira, who assumed the title of minister of information communication technology and cyber security after Robert Mugabe’s forced resignation this November, said, according to NewsDay Zimbabwe. “There should be redundancy plans in place, and I wonder why these did not kick in. If we find that these companies were not truthful with us, we will revoke their licenses,” he said.
The internet is increasingly part of daily life in Zimbabwe. As of 2016, roughly 50 percent of Zimbabweans have internet access—up from only 5 percent in 2010. It is not without its problems, though. Freedom House’s 2017 “Freedom on the Net” report listed Zimbabwe’s internet as “Partly Free,” citing “government efforts to exert greater control over the country’s ICT market and internet infrastructure.”
Given that record, it may be reasonable to wonder whether the government could have cut internet access. But according to the state-owned newspaper The Herald, though, Mandiwanzira denied that the government had any role the internet outage. Peter Micek, general counsel of the open-internet nonprofit Access Now, agreed. “Trust in authorities remains brittle in Zimbabwe,” he acknowledged in an email, but he added, “We believe this outage was coincidental, not intentional” due to the confirmation from the internet service providers of technical outages.
But Julie Owono, executive director of Internet Sans Frontieres, expressed more doubt via email:
As a member of the #Keepiton coalition, Internet Without Borders questions the simultaneity of these cable cuts. To quash doubts, Liquid Telecom and TelOne should be transparent and make public detailed reports explaining the precise circumstances of the cable cuts. It is also urgent that Zimbabwe's new government commits to guaranteeing the online human rights of its citizens by refusing to voluntarily cut the country from the Internet, especially for political reasons.
Governments intentionally cutting off internet access is a big problem worldwide. Between January and October of this year, Access Now recorded more than 60 internet shutdowns of varying severity. African countries like Cameroon, Egypt, The Gambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have limited internet use in the past to quell political unrest, and in 2016, Mugabe’s administration raised prices on cellphone service following the largest protest in a decade, a move that many thought was intended to limit social media use by activists.
The South African tractor that apparently wiped out broadband in Zimbabwe is far from the only unexpected cause of infrastructural havoc. In 2011, The Telegraph reported on a 75-year-old woman who cut through a cable in the country Georgia while foraging for scrap metal, unintentionally taking away 90 percent of Armenia’s internet access for half a day. But Hayastan Shakarian insisted, “I have no idea what the internet is.” In 2008, a ship’s anchor damaged a cable providing web and phone access to a large swathe of the Middle East. Google wraps its underwater cables in a ballistic-resistant protective coating to prevent sharks from biting through the Internet-giving conduits. And we would be remiss to not mention cybersquirrel1.com, a tongue-in-cheek site tracking the many instances of squirrel and other wildlife-caused power disruptions.
Fortunately, Zimbabwe was only internet-less for a handful of hours, but let those long email, social media, and online-shopping-free minutes serve as a warning to tractor drivers to check their routes just a little bit more carefully in the future.