The rapid growth in internet usage despite high cost of access and the expected population boom in Africa—already the youngest continent by age of its population—jointly represent a significant opportunity for some of the world’s largest tech firms who are betting big on facilitating internet infrastructure and, by extension, ensuring hundreds of millions of potential customers get online to use their services.
With internet penetration rates on the continent estimated at an average of 24%, it remains the only continent where over half the total population is without internet access. Yet, that stat represents some significant improvement given internet connections stood at 2.1% in 2005. In fact, Africa recorded the highest growth in internet use globally between 2005 and 2018, resulting in a significant global internet usage milestone.
Two of the world’s largest tech companies are setting about making sure that growth continues.
Facebook is reportedly working on plans for “Simba” (named after the Lion King cartoon character), an underwater cable that will circle the continent with landings on multiple coasts. It’s similar to undersea cable projects the social media giant has undertaken in Europe and Asia. It’s unclear whether or not Facebook will partner with African telecoms operators, especially for funding.
Google’s underwater cable plans are much further along. It has confirmed construction plans for a cable connecting Portugal and South Africa with the first phase due to be completed by 2021. The new cable, named Equiano (after 18th century Nigerian writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano), will have 20 times the capacity of the most recent projects laid in the region and will first branch out in Nigeria—Africa’s largest internet market. The project will be fully funded by Google.
The big picture for these companies is that the deployment of high-capacity fiber-optic cables will ultimately improve connectivity and likely make internet costs much cheaper, allowing more Africans to get—and stay—connected. For Google and Facebook, the tens of millions of people who will come online as a result also represent a larger target market for their ever-growing cache of products and advertising services.
The large-scale underwater cable projects are a change of tack for both Google and Facebook who have attempted previous internet access initiatives in Africa. Facebook has launched Free Basics, a platform which allows users access a select list of websites at no cost, in partnership local telecoms operators in over 20 African countries. But the free service has been subject of controversy and has been criticized for being a ”walled garden” version of the internet curated by Facebook.
For its part, Google has launched a free public wifi service in Lagos, Nigeria and Project Loon, an ambitious plan by one of its subsidiaries to beam internet to users using solar-powered high-altitude balloons, is expected to first launch in Kenya.
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