Google Equiano: the Internet giant is betting big on Africa with its latest megaproject


Running thousands of miles across the sea floor, the cable’s landing had been delayed for months by harsh conditions and Covid-19. But now there it was, inches wide and already covered in sand. A welcome party was held on the beach and posed for photos before the cable continued inland. Equiano had finally arrived.

Equiano is the latest undersea internet cable funded by Google. Beginning in Portugal and eventually ending in South Africa, with branches in Nigeria, Togo, the islands of Saint Helena and Namibia, the 15,000 kilometer (9,320 mile) cable is designed to provide broadband to broadband along the west coast of Africa. . Its capacity, a whopping 144 terabits per second, is 20 times greater than the previous cable serving the region and could boost internet speeds fivefold in some countries.

Named after the Nigerian-born 18th-century writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, the cable could be life-changing for some.

Barney Harmse was among those on Swakopmund beach when the cable landed. He is the CEO of telecommunications company Paratus Group, which worked alongside Telecom Namibia to provide the country’s 500 kilometer cable branch. “We’re excited as hell, I have to say,” he told CNN before landing. “It’s going to have a huge impact on our part of the world.”

Bridging the digital divide

Telecommunications have come a long way since the first undersea telegraph cable in 1858. In 2021, there were over 1.3 million kilometers of undersea cable in the world, carrying over 95% of intercontinental internet traffic . But Internet access is still very uneven. In sub-Saharan Africa, internet use is the lowest of any region in the world, broadband coverage is significantly below global averages, and high data costs have proven to be a barrier to adoption, according to the Bank. world.
According to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, providing good quality and affordable universal broadband across Africa by 2030 would cost around $109 billion. The economic impact of this investment would be considerable. Less than 25% of Africans use the internet, but if the percentage were increased to 75% (about the same as in Cuba or Moldova), it could increase job creation by 9%, according to the report.
Google won’t disclose the full value of its investment in Equiano, but Paratus said the deal between Google, Telecom Namibia and itself is valued at N$300 million ($20 million). In October 2021, Google announced that it would invest $1 billion in Africa’s digital transformation, including connectivity and investments in startups.
Paratus Group CEO Barney Harmse poses with the Namibian branch of Equiano on July 1, 2022.
The cable is expected to start carrying traffic in early 2023, Paratus says. According to a report commissioned by Google, Equiano will lower data prices between 16% and 21% in South Africa, Namibia and Nigeria, and in the latter could lead to the creation of 1.6 million jobs, driven by the expansion of the digital economy and peripheral sectors.

“With increased access to the Internet, societies can modernize, people can acquire new skills and knowledge that can open the door to new job opportunities, and businesses and governments can increase productivity and discover new sources of revenue through digital transformation,” Bikash Koley, Google’s vice president of global networks, said in a statement to CNN.

Access does not stop at coastal countries. Harmse says Paratus will connect Equiano’s Namibian branch to its network which covers Angola, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These countries “will see an immediate benefit” when the cable comes online, he says.

A prepaid electric truck makes deliveries on Rwanda's dirt roads

“We are investing daily to increase the infrastructure and capacity of our landlocked neighbours,” adds Harmse. “It’s not a one-time project with a specific start and stop (point)…it’s like a beast – an organism that you have to keep nurturing.”

Some of the beneficiaries of this expansion are students. Paratus claims to have installed internet connections in educational institutions collectively teaching more than 10,000 students in Namibia under the EduVision program, which provides smart boards and e-learning technology to schools, particularly in rural areas.

The race to connect

More cables are on the way – work is underway on 2Africa, a 45,000 kilometer undersea cable encircling the African continent and connecting to Europe and Asia, funded by a consortium led by Meta (formerly Facebook). The cable landed in Genoa, Italy in April and in Djibouti in May.
2Africa, a 45,000 kilometer (28,000 mile) undersea cable that will circle Africa and connect to Europe and Asia, landed in Genoa, Italy earlier this year.

The continent will need both cables and more as internet usage expands and older cables become obsolete or reach the end of their operational life.

Alan Mauldin, research director at telecommunications market research firm TeleGeography, says demand for international bandwidth in Africa tripled between 2018 and 2021, and that by 2028 demand will be 16 times greater than that. from last year.

While intercontinental cables will continue to play an important role in Africa’s Internet future, so will local data centers. Storing more internet data in Africa and positioning data centers closer to end users will speed up response time and reduce data costs, says Harmse. “It’s the next big thing,” he says, adding that Paratus’ latest data center, an $8 million project in Namibia’s capital Windhoek, will be completed in August.

In the meantime, Equiano continues its journey to South Africa, its final destination, while engineers work to connect its branches to the ever-growing West African network.

“The race is on,” says Harmse. “Africa is the continent to connect.”

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