Google Equiano: internet giant bets big on Africa with latest mega project

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.

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

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

Telecommunications has come a long way since the first submarine telegraph cable in 1858. From 2021 there were more than 1.3 million kilometers of submarine cable around the world, with more than 95% of intercontinental internet traffic. But internet access is still very uneven. In Sub-Saharan Africa, internet use the lowest of any region in the worldbroadband coverage is significantly below global averages, and high data costs have proven to be a barrier to adoption, according to the World Bank.
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To provide universal, affordable, high-quality broadband across Africa by 2030, it is estimated that it would cost $109 billion, according to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. The economic impact of that investment would be significant. Less than 25% of Africans use the Internet, but if the percentage is increased to 75% (about the same as Cuba or Moldova) it could increase job creation by: nine percentit says.
Google will not disclose the total value of its investment in Equiano, but Paratus said the deal between Google, Telecom Namibia and itself was valued at 300 million Namibian dollars ($20 million). In October 2021, Google said it would invest $1 billion in Africa’s digital transformation, including connectivity and investment in startups.
Barney Harmse, CEO of Paratus Group, poses with Equiano's Namibian branch on July 1, 2022.
The cable is planned to carry traffic in early 2023, says Paratus. According to a report commissioned by GoogleEquiano will cause data prices in South Africa, Namibia and Nigeria to fall by 16% to 21%, and in the latter case could lead to the creation of 1.6 million jobs, driven by the expansion of the digital economy and peripheral sectors.

“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.

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“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.”

Some of the beneficiaries of that expansion are students. Paratus says it has installed internet connections in educational institutions that collectively teach more than 10,000 students in Namibia as part of the EduVision program, which provides smartboards and e-learning technology to schools, particularly in rural areas.

The race to connect

More cables are coming — work is underway on 2Africa, a 45,000 kilometers submarine cable around the African continent and connected 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) submarine cable that will circle Africa and connect Europe and Asia, landed in Genoa, Italy, earlier this year.

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.”

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