With internet penetration rates estimated at an average of 24%, over half of Africa’s total population is without internet access. In the same vein, the continent recorded the highest growth in global usage between 2005 and 2018—a significant milestone that hasn’t escaped some of the world’s largest tech firms’ notice.
Recent announcements by Google and Facebook to build new undersea cables around Africa indicate a move to bet big on facilitating internet infrastructure and drive down bandwidth costs, making it easier to gain millions of potential new users.
Facebook is working on plans for “Simba”, an underwater cable that will circle the continent with landings on multiple coasts, while Google announced that it will fully fund a new cable, “Equiano” from Portugal, down the west coast of the continent down to Capetown in South Africa, with multiple branches extending connectivity to additional African countries along the coast. The first branch is slated to land in Nigeria.
Google has, over the last three years, invested $47 billion in its global infrastructure with a total of 14 investments in international cables, including joint ventures.
“Equiano”, its 14th undersea cable is according to Google, is named after Nigerian author, Olaudah Equiano a Nigerian—born writer and abolitionist who was enslaved as a boy.
Facebook is partnering with African cellular networks, MTN and Vodacom with plans to link up with beachheads in several countries on the continent’s eastern, western and Mediterranean coasts, while Google’s Equiano will be built by Alcatel Submarine Networks. It is expected to be operational by 2021 and said to have 20 times the network capacity of the latest undersea cable linking Europe to South Africa.
According to Google, Equiano will be the first subsea cable to use optical switching at the fiber-pair level rather than wavelength—level switching that will simplifiy the allocation of cable capacity, creating the flexibility to add and reallocate it in as many different locations as needed.
Both companies have made previous internet access attempts through initiatives in Africa with Facebook “Free Basics”, a platform granting users access to a select list of websites at no cost, in partnership with local telecoms operators across 20 African countries.
The service has, however, spurred controversy leading to criticism on its efficiency.
Google launched a free public wifi service in Lagos, Nigeria as well as “Project Loon”, a plan to beam internet to users using solar-powered high-altitude balloons which is slated to launch first in Kenya.
Several cables including privately owned Main One already serve Nigeria and West Africa.