The cable, which ran for thousands of kilometers along the seabed, had been delayed for months by severe conditions and Covid-19. But now it was here, a few inches wide and already covered in sand. A welcome party stood on the beach and posed for photos before the cable headed inland. Equiano had finally arrived.
Equiano is the latest undersea Internet cable funded by Google. Starting in Portugal and finally ending in South Africa, with branches to Nigeria, Togo, the islands of Saint Helena and Namibia, the 15,000 kilometer cable is designed to provide high-speed broadband along the west coast of Africa. Its capacity, a whopping 144 terabits per second, is 20 times that of the previous cable serving the region and is said to more than fivefold in internet speeds in some countries.
Barney Harmse was one of those on the beach in Swakopmund when the cable landed. He is the CEO of telecommunications company Paratus Group, which partnered with Telecom Namibia to supply the country’s 500-kilometer cable branch. “We’re really excited, I have to say,” he told CNN before landing. “It will have a huge impact on our part of the world.”
Closing the digital divide
“With more internet access, societies can modernize, people can acquire new skills and knowledge that can open doors to new jobs, and businesses and governments can increase productivity and discover new revenue streams as a result of digital transformation,” said Bikash Koley, Google vice president. of global networks, in a statement to CNN.
Access does not stop at coastal states. Harmse says Paratus will connect Equiano’s Namibian branch to its network spanning 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.
“We invest daily to increase infrastructure and capacity to our landlocked neighbors,” Harmse adds. “It’s not a single project with a specific start and stop (point) … it’s like a beast — an organism that you have to keep feeding.”
The race to connect
The continent will need both cables and more as internet usage grows and older cables become obsolete or reach the end of their operational life.
Alan Mauldin, research director at telecom 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 higher than last year.
While intercontinental cables will continue to play an important role in Africa’s internet future, so will homegrown data centers. By storing more internet data in Africa and moving data centers closer to end users, response time is reduced and data costs are reduced, Harmse explains. “It’s the next big thing,” he says, adding that Paratus’ newest data center, an $8 million project in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, will be completed in August.
Meanwhile, Equiano continues his journey to his final destination, South Africa, as engineers work to link its sites to West Africa’s ever-expanding network.
“The race is over,” says Harmse. “Africa is the continent to connect.”