US social media giant Facebook wants to shape the future by supplying internet access to every person on earth, unleashing huge, untapped markets for its products. Controversies about how the company handles user data, a wholesale ban in China, and occasional temporary blocks in politically sensitive countries have done nothing to dampen the zeal with which the company is driving into far-flung corners of the globe.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s rapidly expanding population has led Facebook to lead the construction of 2Africa – an ambitious 37,000km-long underwater cable around Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean – which it hopes will supply faster, cheaper internet to 16 African countries by 2024.
Facebook is partnering with eight established carriers, including MTN, Orange, China Mobile and Vodafone, alongside Nokia-owned cable systems provider Alcatel Submarine Networks, to lay a cable with an African link stretching from Senegal to the Suez Canal via the Cape that it says will provide nearly three times the total network capacity of all the subsea cables serving Africa today.
Silicon Valley has identified African internet infrastructure as a high growth investment opportunity. Google’s subsea Equiano cable – which will travel from Portugal to South Africa with a branching unit to Nigeria – is designed to have 20 times more network capacity than the last cable built to serve the region. Facebook is expected to pump an initial $1bn into 2Africa.
“The Covid situation has shown how important internet access is, as the digital divide becomes such a big issue,” says Ibrahima Ba, emerging markets lead at Facebook’s Network Investments. “You can’t provide 21st century education to someone who doesn’t have the internet, and because just 25% to 30% of Africans are online, that increases inequality, so that’s one of the reasons that we’re focusing on Africa, and making this huge investment in the future connectivity of the continent.
“I’ve been to places in Africa where people have told me that they would rather see a mobile network tower than have reliable electricity, so this project is super, super important for education, and to provide access to the jobs of the future.”
During the last two decades, submarine cables have been a key growth enabler for communication and trade between Africa and the rest of the world. The economic impact of internet access on GDP growth is significant, and network outages in Africa wreak havoc for governments and businesses alike, necessitating the need for reliable new cables linking Africa to the world.
When Somalia was cut off from the internet for three weeks in 2017, the country’s telecommunications minister Abdi Anshur Hassan estimated that the outage cost the country $10m per day. The national carrier Dalkom Somalia is part of the 2Africa initiative, and Hassan says uninterrupted connectivity will bring new business opportunities.
The cable will be buried further out to sea and 50% deeper than existing cables that link to Africa, significantly reducing network outages resulting from cable damage caused by ship anchors, fishing nets, and the outward flow of the Congo River. It will house twice the fibres of existing cables and introduce redundancy – meaning bandwidth can change direction from east to west and vice-versa if a cut occurs, providing greater reliability for internet service providers (ISPs).
The extension of infrastructure is already having a marked effect on the cost and availability of internet. Stark declines in the price of international capacity and recent investments in cables have caused data prices in Africa to start to fall and triggered a jump in the volume of data consumed over Africa’s networks. Mobile internet users in Africa more than doubled to 250m between 2014 and 2018 according to consultancy GSMA.
Yet the project is not merely philanthropic – internet growth in the region is good for the bottom line of Facebook and its project partners. The Californian-based company says 95m sub-Saharan Africans use Facebook each month, and millions more access Facebook-owned Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger, offering a vast new market for sophisticated content and advertisers.
In 2018, Facebook revealed it had 139m users a month in Africa, 98% of whom connected via mobile.
“They need eyeballs, they need users, that’s what they need for their investors, so they can add more people who subscribe to any of their suite of products,” says Patrick Christian of TeleGeography, a telecoms market research and consulting firm.
The future of connectivity
Network capacity will likely outstrip demand for now, but the initiative will lay the foundation for increased 4G and 5G networks in future years.
“The day everybody goes to 4G, and 5G, you’re going to need massive infrastructure for the capacity. So that’s what this is. Enabling capacity for the next 15 to 20 years, to ensure that content can get closer to the users, and users can benefit from 4G and 5G networks, and maybe all of the developing technologies,” says Ba.
In the countries where the 2Africa cable lands, ISPs will secure capacity in carrier-neutral data centres, and open-access cable landing stations, on a “fair and equitable” basis. The liberalised market should result in lower data costs and greater penetration, according to Christian.
“In the past, broadband carriers charged a lot more, with fewer subscribers, and they had a certain revenue that they were comfortable with. Some suppliers have been lagging in switching over to getting more subscribers, but if your broadband works better, you can sell more capacity, and with a better service. It means more subscribers, which makes the switch-over easier. So 2Africa is going to have an impact on prices, and it will increase competition among suppliers.”
Ba says 2Africa will encourage governments and the private sector to build out terrestrial networks on the continent, which will bring more people online in rural areas, and help to “redistribute global power”. With rural areas historically neglected, Facebook hopes 2Africa can prompt governments and the private sector to build terrestrial networks to link to inland users now that they have the backbone of sub-sea infrastructure. Ba says Facebook’s partnership with Nigerian firm MainOne – building a 750km terrestrial network in Edo and Ogun States – will be replicated elsewhere.
“We did a similar thing in northwest Uganda, where we built fibre that’s actually used to connect South Sudan and the Eastern DRC, so that’s another example of integration in the region that we’re pursuing. Terrestrial fibre is going to continue to be an important focus, not just for Facebook, but for all of the parties, and for even some of the governments that we need to push, to make sure that this connectivity actually reaches the people who need it the most.”
Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said internet connectivity is a “basic human right”, and in 2014, announced his aim to get every person on the planet online.
Zuckerberg’s critics argue that Facebook is aggressively colonising the digital universe by centralising the web around its platforms. Facebook’s roll-out of Free Basics – an app available in 50 countries allowing mobile users access to the site free of data charges –led to accusations that the company was violating net neutrality rules and undercutting local internet service providers.
Yet Ba says Africa cannot afford to be left behind, as the world increasingly transitions from industrial, resource-based economies, to knowledge economies and the introduction of artificial intelligence.