We live in an age where the Internet is fast becoming an essential part of human existence. Even the United Nations (UN) agrees that it is more of a right than a luxury. However, in Africa, billions of people are either unreached, have low-quality Internet, or cannot afford it.
This can be linked to several systemic issues across the continent, but several stakeholders can agree that a first step would be to deepen Internet infrastructure. Subsea Internet cables from the likes of Seacom, Glo, MTN, MainOne, and a host of others are the major backbone of such a move.
In May 2020, Facebook announced that it was planning to build a 37,000km subsea Internet cable worth $1 billion. While this seems like good news, there’s just one small thing; from 2000 to date, at least 19 submarine Internet cables have been connected to Africa.
What are subsea Internet cables?
Subsea cables carry telecommunication signals across the continents of the world, connecting countries to international Internet exchanges.
“The subsea cables are like the fibre cables laid on the land except that they have other materials protecting them as they have to stay underwater for life/long time,” Simon* a top telecom executive explains.
Why are subsea Internet cables important?
Subsea cables help users access the Internet at high speeds. Your service provider connects to one or more of these cables which, in turn, offer you access to the Internet.
“Subsea cables deliver Internet capacity and reliability and underpin the further growth of 4G, 5G, and fixed broadband access for countries,” says Ifeanyi Akosionu, Business Director, Technology, Media and Telecoms (TMT) for Verrakki.
Damage to these cables can cause network disruptions, and you will either have significantly lower connectivity speeds or your network will be offline.
How does the value get to the user?
As Simon explains, service providers buy access to these cables at wholesale prices, and in turn, they retail it to end-users. Usually, the subsea cables connected to other continents give you access to their content.
However, the rise of local Internet exchanges — a physical location where content providers and Internet service providers connect — has made sure your requests for content do not go overseas.
Will more subsea cables bring faster Internet?
Having just subsea cables does not translate to faster Internet capacity. Service providers might only have to pay less to connect due to increased competition. Ideally, this should reduce the cost of data for end-users, but this is not always the case.
According to Akosionu, ample international capacity is good if countries have the required infrastructure to leverage. This will be through networks that take the capacity at the country’s borders to every state and town.
There is a gap
Akosionu’s statement points out the gap between Internet cable capacity at Africa’s borders and its states and towns. On closer inspection, this gap is massive.
According to data from Many Possibilities, the West and East African coasts each have cables with Internet capacity of at least 100 Tbps. By the end of 2021, the number could double.
In comparison, according to 2019 data from cable.co.uk, apart from Madagascar, no African country has an average Internet speed of up to 10 Mbps. Madagascar enjoys the benefits of a submarine cable that gives it an average of 22 Mbps, which is why it has a global ranking of 33.
However, other African countries are not so lucky. To reflect the gap in numbers, out of an available 100 million Mbps (100 Tbps) on the East and West coasts, African countries use just 10 Mbps on average.
Most of these countries rely on wireless 2G/3G networks, while a few have access to 4G networks that are usually slower than global standards.
While major cities like Lagos, Nairobi, and Cape Town can boast of decent network speeds, rural areas are either still unreached or underserved.
Funke Opeke, CEO of MainOne cable company, reveals that ten years after its launch, the MainOne cable (10 terabits) only operates at 10% capacity.
The importance of the last mile
Going past the sea level, for Africa to reap the full benefits of its Internet capacities, there have to be significant investments in fibre optic cables to reach the last mile.
Akosionu states that historically, base transceiver stations (telecom masts) achieved connections with the coaxial cables, but recent innovations have incorporated fibre optic cable connections using fibre-to-the-antenna (FTTA) technology.
According to him, as more people get connected to the Internet, and with 5G on the horizon, the case for such fibre network connections becomes stronger.
However, for most African countries, Internet infrastructure remains a big problem. This is usually the result of unfriendly business terrains, dominant monopolies, or multi-layered regulatory hurdles.
The result? Several locations still don’t have access to the Internet, and for several others, the quality is subpar.
The possible threat of big tech
With the likes of Facebook planning to build a subsea Internet cable to add 180 Tbps to Africa’s current capacity, one has to ask where it will all fit in?
A report by Analysys Mason named “THE IMPACT OF FACEBOOK’S CONNECTIVITY INITIATIVES IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA”(PDF) stated that Facebook’s initiatives would generate up to $50 billion for Africa.
However, it is not clear how much Facebook is investing to deepen Internet infrastructure to the last mile.
Akosionu states that moves by the likes of Google and Facebook are the result of large volumes of data traffic on their platforms. For him, these deployments aim to hedge against insufficient cable capacity at agreeable commercial rates and provide route diversity, amongst other factors.
Akosionu affirms that the gap between terrestrial fibre networks and Internet cables needs to be closed for Africans to enjoy improved Internet at reduced costs.
Opeke further asks why Facebook is adding to an existing glut and not making use of what exists to deepen terrestrial infrastructure in Africa?
“We have hundreds of terabits offshore, but we struggle to get one terabit around Nigeria,” she explains.
Opeke points to the fact that over-the-top services offered by tech giants have slowly eroded telcos’ voice revenues over the years.
Despite the supposed growth in data traffic, voice has remained the cash cow and declines in voice revenues have not been offset by growth in data revenues.
“If the profit margins of telcos become gradually eroded, what happens to them? Given the presence of Google or Facebook, what happens if they lose the incentive to build last-mile infrastructure?”
Though Facebook is looking to partner with telcos, it is not clear how telcos will benefit considering the operational and regulatory hurdles they will have to face while deploying these infrastructures.
Barring a few states in Nigeria, for example, high fees are charged before telcos are granted permission to lay fibre-optic cables. Until recently, Telkom SA in South Africa enjoyed a monopoly on broadband.
Apparently, a lot of work needs to be done to connect Africa to the Internet at affordable rates for its citizens. It would, therefore, be interesting to see how big tech’s Interest in Africa plays out.