Internet outage: what we know about the sabotage of fiber optic cables in several major cities in France

“Hey hop, a morning without internet”, “Internet and mobile network failure in Reims”, “Big Freebox outage in eastern France” : here are the messages that we could read on Twitter, Wednesday, April 27. The previous night, fiber optic cables carrying large amounts of data were severed, causing severe network disruptions in several major French cities, including Grenoble, Besançon, Reims and Strasbourg.

Although fiber optic cable breaks are regular, they are generally the result of human error, for example during work carried out on the road network. But at the beginning of the afternoon on Wednesday, the Secretary of State for Digital, Cédric O, recognised from “cable cuts”which the operator Free has called “malicious acts”. Here is what we know about this “attack on an unprecedented scale”according to the French Telecoms Federation (FFT).

Several major cities affected

Wednesday morning, at dawn, many French people had difficulty connecting in several large cities in the Grenoble region, in Besançon, Reims, Lyon, Alsace and in Ile-de-France. Very quickly, the reports of Internet users multiplied on social networks and on the site specialized in detecting access problems Down Detector.

Subscribers of the operator Free and, to a lesser extent, of SFR, claimed to be deprived of internet connection and television. Their competitor, Bouygues Telecom, “do not use the links affected by these malfunctions”explained the group, which was therefore not affected by these outages, just like Orange.

At the end of the day, the Zone ADSL site had recorded 9,741 breakdowns on the fixed Internet in France during the last 24 hours. At 6 p.m., the connections were “restored to the affected areas”then announced the FFT on behalf of all operators. “The repair work on the cables is nevertheless very heavy and is still continuing today”, she specified.

Cut inter-regional “long distance” cables

According to initial findings, these are inter-regional “long distance” fiber optic cables that run along highways, railways and waterways that have been deliberately cut at three points on the Paris-Lyon, Paris-Strasbourg links and Paris-Lille.

As revealed by the specialized site Numeramathe cable breaks would have occurred almost simultaneously, “around 3:20 a.m., 3:40 a.m. and 5:20 a.m.” overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday. The backbone of an Internet network, the “backbone” is used to interconnect Internet traffic between different geographical areas using very high-speed fibers.

The most affected operator, Free assured on Twitter at midday that the “incidents” were “circumscribed” and the “residual issues being fixed”. He clarified that“about 1% of subscribers have been impacted since 4 a.m.”. The operator posted photos obviously showing severed cables, without specifying where they were taken.

The operators quickly organized themselves to restore the connection via alternative paths. “It’s a bit like if highways were cut and traffic had to be redirected to national roads”explained to AFP Sami Slim, managing director of Telehouse, one of the hubs of internet traffic in France.

Probably coordinated “malicious acts”

For the operators concerned and those connoisseurs of the subject, this is, without a doubt, a voluntary act. In a press release published Wednesday evening, the French Telecoms Federation and the operators Bouygues Telecom, Orange, SFR and Free thus condemned “firmly these acts of malice”.

The fact that these are three incidents, in three different places, several hundred kilometers apart, makes the thesis of an accident very implausible. “Excavators do not cut the Internet in the middle of the night around 3:40 am”pointed out Nicolas Guillaume, manager of the alternative operator dedicated to Netalis professionals, in the columns of Numerama.

“It’s an almost professional act, it’s several coordinated attacks across the country with a few minutes apart.”

Michel Combot, General Manager of the FFT

at franceinfo

“Is this an act of digital terrorism? Maybe. There was a major impact there, because the coordination of the attacks on the cables was done well, by people who inevitably know the network”, added Nicolas Guillaume. For Philippe Le Grand, president of InfraNum, the federation that brings together all of the French digital infrastructure manufacturers, this “irresponsible aggression” is likely to cause “dramatic consequences, such as the delay of personal rescue operations”.

No claims were found

A preliminary investigation was opened on Wednesday for “deterioration of property likely to harm the fundamental interests of the Nation”, “obstructing an automated data processing system” and “criminal association”, announced the Paris prosecutor’s office. The investigations were entrusted to the DGSI, internal intelligence and the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police (DCPJ).

The track of political activists is not excluded, according to information from franceinfo, even if, at this stage, no claim has been found by the gendarmes who carried out the findings on the various sites targeted. “This operation requires a good technical knowledge”notes an intelligence source interviewed by franceinfo.

“Not everyone knows where a long-distance internet cable pull trap is. That’s a first clue.”

a source of information

at franceinfo

Michel Combot notes with franceinfo a “upsurge in acts of vandalism, burned pylons, severed cables for which the perpetrators do not incur enough dissuasive sanctions”. “The challenge is to be able to hunt down and condemn the perpetrators of these acts”he adds.

An unprecedented attack

Over the past two years, more than 200 relay antennas have been degraded, most often burned, by anti-5G, ultra-left or anarchist activists, according to our information. But malicious acts against optical fibers are much rarer.

In March 2020, telecom cables were intentionally cut in Ile-de-France, Vitry and Ivry (Val-de-Marne), temporarily depriving tens of thousands of Orange subscribers of internet access while data centers have seen their operations disrupted.

Rebelote in May 2020: in full confinement, more than 100,000 Orange customers were deprived of Internet or mobile services after the cutting of cables at the grinder in several municipalities in Val-de-Marne and part of the south- east of Paris. Again, these were acts of vandalism, but which would have been the act of a single person, according to the elements put forward by Orange at the time, unlike the attack on Wednesday, which would have been the act of several authors. “Never has an attack of this magnitude targeted underground internet infrastructure”assures Michel Combot.

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Internet outage: what we know about the sabotage of fiber optic cables in several major cities in France

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