January this year, the road ahead for internet connectivity in Africa looked grimer than ever. What was one of the last efforts to provide sustainable, and of course, affordable web connection for the world’s last frontier market literally popped.
But, now 7 months since that tough call, there are hopes for a more connected Africa—around the continent and to the Global West.
For longer than can be traced, slow internet speeds, high data costs and poor infrastructure have been the main problem with locally connecting Africa and patching it up with the rest of the world. A handful of initiatives to develop the region’s internet have come from international initiators but not all of those efforts are created equal.
At the end of January 2021, Alphabet—the parent company of America’s tech giant, Google—announced that it was winding down on what was its second internet-related project in Africa. After shutting down the seemingly much-beloved Google Station initiative in 2019, the American multinational went on to deflate Project Loon—the ballon-based effort to make internet-carrying vessels airborne.
When X—the moonshot factory where most of Google’s groundbreaking innovations are eureka’d—was shutting down Loon, it pointed to Project Taara, another try at sustainably providing internet connectivity in Africa.
Since then, however, the light beam-based initiative to aggressively extend bandwidth to parts previously underserved hasn’t been so generous with updates.
The coronavirus pandemic had a huge impact on the African internet ecosystem, as the demand for data reached new levels and chunked up profits for some of the continent’s biggest telcos. With the world’s highest concentration of young people, there is definitely more need to ensure that Africa’s internet troubles become a thing of the past.
Enter Facebook. The social internet giant isn’t new to the attempt to create sustainable internet in Africa. As far back as 2015, the Silicon Valley firm was trying to “beam the internet from space” to Africa, for free. But its newest and most important go at effectively connecting Africa is a USD 1 Bn effort that involves undersea cables, 21 landing points and about 16 African countries.
In official consorts with China Mobile International, MTN GlobalConnect, Orange, STC, Telecom Egypt, Vodafone and WIOCC, Facebook is trying to cost-effectively create a permanent link between Africa and that the rest of the world. It’s the same way Reliance Jio is trying to build submarine cables that connect India to Singapore, the Middle East and Europe.
This week, the social media giant announced that it has added 4 more African locations (or countries). To make it a total of 35 landings and 26 African countries—all of are bordered along Africa’s coastline—Facebook has added Seychelles, the Comoros Islands, Angola and the south-eastern part of Nigeria to the subsea cable project.
Unlike many other past efforts to foster internet connectivity in the continent, Facebook’s 2Africa project appears quite inclusive. With touchpoints in almost half of the entire countries in the region, it does look like the social media giant is finally on to something significant.
Previous initiatives like Project Loon and Google Station have been brewed in only a few selected countries, the former in Kenya and Mozambique and the latter in Nigeria and India. According to Facebook, the billion-dollar undersea cable project will deliver more than the cumulative subsea cable capacity that is currently serving the region.
By connecting African, European and Middle Eastern internet service providers to join the 2Africa chain through data centers and cable touchpoints, the project involves up to 180 terabytes per second in internet capacity. As one of the region’s largest internet project yet, much seems in store for 2023 when the connection is due to go live.
Now that even some of Africa’s most unpopular destinations have been added to the mix (welcome DRC, Gabon, and Somalia especially) Facebook might very well deliver on its billion-dollar promise. 2Africa, when operational, will unarguably be one of the most inclusive internet projects in Africa. And unlike many other equally innovative others, this one involves physical cables that actually surround the continent.
“The significant investment by Facebook in 2Africa builds on several other investments we have made in the continent, including infrastructure investments in South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria and DRC. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of connectivity as billions of people around the world rely on the internet to work, attend school and stay connected to the people they care about,” Facebook said in its 2Africa update.
What’s even more interesting—especially at this point in time—is that Facebook isn’t the only big tech player with an undersea internet cable project currently ongoing in Africa.
Google has a plan to connect South Africa to Portugal with a underwater lines due to be completed this year. Known as Equiano, Google claims the new project will be 20 times more than the internet capacity of the projects that have been laid out in Africa.
Reportedly, Equiano will be the first undersea cable project to consider optical switching at the fiber-pair level. Traditional connections often rely on wavelength level switching, which makes Google’s effort an attempt to simplify the allocation of cable capacity. With a project like Equiano, there will be a lot more flexibility to include and accolocate high-speed internet to many underserved locations.
According to Google’s most recent estimate, Equiano will be able to transmit up to 12 terabytes of data every second for each fiber on the cable system. In the real world, that is some 1,200 times the top speed of most newer laptops. Nonetheless, underwater connections like this—as well as other extensive fibre-optic lines—often continually transfer data streams rather than in brief bursts.
With internet giants actively on Africa’s case, the buildup of the continent’s tech infrastructure is likely to assume new levels. Now seemingly at the tipping point, there is now much to serve a continent that will double in population to more than 2.4 billion in 2025.
While projects like Taara, 2Africa and Equiano continue, it’s only a matter of time before the continent becomes as connected as elsewhere—principally accelerating the longstanding drive to reduce internet costs in Africa.
Image Courtesy: India Times