• Fast lanes

    The swathe of submarine internet cables landing around Africa will ensure quicker, cheaper connectivity

    Fast lanes

    In August 2022 Google deployed its Equiano submarine internet cable in Cape Town. The cable runs from the coast of Portugal to South Africa, with landing stations in St Helena Island, Togo, Nigeria and Namibia. Google expects Equiano to contribute indirectly to the creation of 180 000 jobs in South Africa while boosting the national GDP by US$7 billion by 2025. But to appreciate the reach of undersea cables like these, you need to travel north back up that coastline, from Melkbosstrand across half a dozen land borders, to Cameroon.

    Cameroon has been investing heavily in digitalisation, deploying more than 15 000 km of fibre optics throughout the country. ‘Over the past four years, the mobile broadband penetration rate in our country went from 18% to 39% as a result of the various measures deployed to strengthen competition and regulatory accountability,’ Cameroon’s Minister of Telecoms Minette Libom Li Likeng told the Ministerial Alliance for Digital Nations in February.

    Cameroon is connected to six international submarine cables (excluding Equiano), while Nigeria has eight and South Africa 10. When those cables – many of them no thicker than a hosepipe – make landfall, they bring with them the promise of faster, cheaper access to the global digital economy.

    Equiano, for example, has landing points in Nigeria, Namibia and South Africa. According to a Google report, ‘by 2025, due to Equiano, internet speeds in Nigeria are expected to increase five-fold, and to almost triple in South Africa and Namibia. Over the same time frame, internet prices are expected to drop by between 16% and 21% in the three countries. Improved speeds and lower prices are expected to increase internet penetration by more than seven percentage points in Nigeria and South Africa, and 9 percentage points in Namibia’.

    According to Telkom Group CEO, Serame Taukobong, ‘the connectivity that will be unlocked through Equiano will have an immense impact on the ICT sector and the domestic economy overall. The capacity that Equiano offers will make connectivity more accessible and affordable, helping to bridge the digital divide in South Africa. Making connectivity more attainable will also allow small businesses to embrace digital innovation and fully step into the digital economy’.

    Liquid Dataport, a subsidiary of pan-African tech company Cassava Technologies, has acquired a pair of fibre cables on Equiano. ‘Lack of access to affordable internet connectivity across the continent, be it in the largest cities or the remotest villages, is a significant hurdle for Africans and organisations adopting digital technologies,’ says CEO David Eurin. ‘Therefore, the landing of Equiano capacity by Liquid Dataport in South Africa will significantly foster the development of businesses in Southern African countries through better access to high-speed connectivity and increased access to digital technologies like cloud and cybersecurity, to name a few.’

    Google, of course, is not the only show in town. In March 2022, the Hong Kong-based PEACE (Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe) cable landed in Mombasa, Kenya. ‘This ultra-high-capacity cable will assist Kenya and the region in meeting its current and future broadband-capacity requirements, bolster redundancy, minimise transit time of our country’s connectivity to Asia and Europe, as well as assist carriers in providing affordable services to Kenyans,’ says Telkom Kenya CEO Mugo Kibati.

    PEACE is the country’s sixth undersea cable, and its capacity of 16 terabytes per second (Tbps) is five times the first five cables – Djibouti Africa Region Express 1; SEACOM; the East African Marine Cable System ; East African Submarine Cable System; and Lion2.

    Meanwhile, in May 2022 a consortium led by Facebook’s parent company, Meta, and including MTN, Orange, Vodafone and the West Indian Ocean Cable Company, launched the 180 Tbps 2Africa cable. At 45 000 km long, and linking 33 African, Asian and European countries, the subsea cable system is the longest ever.

    In December 2022, 2Africa landed at Duynefontein in the Western Cape. In January 2023 it became the first cable to land in the Eastern Cape, at the Vodacom network facility in Gqeberha. By February, 2Africa was landing in Amanzimtoti in KwaZulu-Natal.

    While previous submarine cables would cover either of Africa’s west and east coasts, 2Africa is the first to round the Cape of Good Hope, serving the whole of Africa and linking Europe (via the Cape) to India, Pakistan and other Asian territories. And with 21 landings in 16 African countries, it is also designed to support the growth of 4G, 5G and fixed broadband access for hundreds of millions of people.

    While still the least-connected continent, between 2017 and 2021 Africa saw the most rapid growth of international internet bandwidth, with a 45% CAGR

    ‘Currently, Africa is the least connected continent, with only a quarter of its 1.3 billion people connected to the internet,’ Kevin Salvadori, network investments director at Meta, writes in an online post. ‘The 2Africa subsea cable system will provide nearly three times the total network capacity of all the subsea cables serving Africa today.’

    A study commissioned by Meta highlights the impact of submarine cables on key African economies. It found that in Nigeria, subsea cable landings completed since 2010 have resulted in a 7.8% increase in the likelihood of employment (in areas connected to fibre). In the DRC, the subsea cable landing completed in 2012 led to an 8.2% increase in the likelihood of being employed for people in connected areas, and 19% increase in GDP per capita. South Africa, meanwhile, experienced a 6.1% increase in GDP per capita by 2014 as a result of cables landing in 2009. ‘These impacts are significant, and they signal that efforts to tackle affordability challenges are important for addressing inequity and ensuring that the economic benefits of connectivity are enjoyed by all,’ the study notes.

    Another key aspect of these submarine cables is their potential (as claimed by both Google and Meta) to drive down connectivity costs. That’s sorely needed in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the GSMA’s State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2021 report, the cost of 1 GB of data in the region is 4% of monthly GDP per capita, which is double the Broadband Commission target of 2%. The GSMA notes that ‘a 5 GB bundle became more affordable in sub-Saharan Africa in 2021 (standing at 7.9% of monthly income per capita compared to 10% in the previous year), although it is still the region with the least affordable data.’

    With lower cost and greater connectivity comes wider access. According to research firm TeleGeography’s 2022 State of the Network report, Africa experienced the most rapid growth of international internet bandwidth between 2017 and 2021, growing at a compound annual rate of 45%. ‘Who’s driving all this demand growth for international capacity?’ the TeleGeography report asks. ‘Historically, it’s been carrier networks, provisioning public internet services. More recently a handful of major content and cloud service providers – namely Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft – have become the primary sources of demand. As of 2020, these companies are the dominant users of international bandwidth, accounting for two-thirds of all used international capacity.’

    So while Africa’s growing array of submarine cables is good news for consumers who crave access to faster, cheaper internet, it’s even better news for big-tech content distributors such as Facebook (owned by Meta), YouTube (owned by Google), Netflix and Amazon.

    In addition to easier and more widespread access, submarine cables can potentially drive down connectivity costs

    BluNOVA CEO Suveer Ramdhani explained the implications in a MyBroadband interview. Typically, companies such as Google and Facebook aim to increase the number of subscribers who connect to their global services. ‘Big players for consumer-facing companies are investing in these cables to facilitate the connectivity of more consumers onto their app or ecosystem to get more [retained profit] per subscriber,’ he said.

    Facebook, for example, measures its profit per subscriber. ‘So the reason that they are investing in these cables – and it’s exactly the same mindset with Google – is that, if they can facilitate the connectivity of more consumers onto their Facebook app or towards the Google ecosystem, they have more subscribers,’ said Ramdhani. By facilitating the connectivity of more consumers, those companies’ advertisements and other revenue-generating products reach more people, which in turn increases the retained profit per customer.

    ‘That’s the heart of the business,’ he said – and it’s why big names such as Google and Meta keep coming up in the submarine cable conversation.

    Expect those conversations to continue. According to TeleGeography, the investment in new undersea cables could possibly exceed US$10 billion between 2022 and 2024. That’s good news for big tech… And good news for Africa.

    By Mark van Dijk
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images