Internet Africa connectivity landlocked

Opinion: Landlocked African countries must not be left behind in the continent’s digitalisation drive

Opinion: Landlocked African countries must not be left behind in the continent’s digitalisation drive
An estimated 40% of African adults are using mobile Internet / CC0 Public Domain /Gerd Altmann
By Jason Mitchell October 23, 2023

Africa’s Internet connectivity is about to get a lot better but there is a risk that some landlocked African countries will be left behind.

Since 2014, considerable progress has been made in improving sub-Saharan Africa’s connectivity. By the end of 2021, 22% of the region’s total population was using mobile internet (including 40% of adults over 18 years of age), according to GSMA, the global mobile operators’ association. Around 83% of the population was covered by a mobile broadband network by the end of 2021, thanks to significant mobile broadband investment. 

However, globally 400mn people are still not covered by a mobile broadband network (5% of the world’s population) — and half of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. In Central Africa, 39% of the population live outside a mobile broadband coverage area, while the figure is 16% in West Africa, 13% in East Africa and 12% in Southern Africa.

The average broadband download speed in Africa jumped from 2.68 megabits per second (Mbps) in 2019 to 8.18 Mbps in 2022. The average price of one gigabyte (GB) decreased to 5% of average monthly gross national income (GNI) in 2021 from 10.5% in 2019. However, broadband affordability remains a challenge in the region — average prices generally exceed the international target of 1GB for no more than 2% of average monthly GNI.

Furthermore, demand for international bandwidth in Africa tripled between 2018 and 2021 and is expected to jump 16-fold between 2021 and 2028, according to TeleGeography, the telecoms research company. Africa’s internet economy has a projected value of $180bn by 2025, according to a report by Google and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). In the next decade, the number of internet users in Africa is expected to surge by 11%, representing 16% of the total global amount, according to the IFC.

African countries with a direct connection to submarine cable have enjoyed the benefits of high-speed Internet for some time but the continent’s sixteen landlocked countries have often been dependent on wireless substitutes that do not work as well. Hyperscalers including Google and Meta (formerly Facebook) are investing massively to improve African connectivity by expanding undersea cable networks to the region. Although a number of landlocked countries will benefit from secondary connections to the new cables, there is a risk that some will still not be properly connected.

In 2019, Google announced the Equiano cable to connect Sesimbra in Portugal to Cape Town in South Africa, with branching units to Lagos in Nigeria, Lomé in Togo, Swakopmund in Namibia and Rupert’s Bay on the island of St Helena. It made its final landing in Melkbosstrand, a coastal town in the southwestern stretch of northern Cape Town in August 2022. Google will not say how much it is spending on the cable but, in October 2021, it said it would invest $1bn in Africa’s digital transformation, including connectivity and investments in start-ups.

The 15,000km cable is designed to deliver high-speed broadband along the west coast of Africa. Its capacity — a whopping 144 terabits (Tbp) per second — is 20 times that of the previous cable serving the region and could improve internet speeds by more than fivefold in some countries. Paratus Africa, the pan-African telco, will connect the Namibian branch of Equiano to its network that spans Angola, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The submarine cable’s infrastructure is based on space-division multiplexing technology and incorporates optical switching at the fibre-pair level, rather than wavelength-level switching. This is designed to simplify the allocation of cable capacity, providing the flexibility to add and reallocate it in different locations as needed.

Equiano has the potential to cause data prices to drop between 16% and 21% in South Africa, Namibia and Nigeria. It could also lead to the creation of 1.6m jobs in Nigeria, driven by the expansion of the digital economy.

Not to be outdone, Meta is leading a project to lay a 45,000km-cable — called 2Africa — around the African continent that connects to Europe and Asia. Total investment is expected to be slightly under $1bn, funded by a consortium made up of Meta, Telecom Egypt, China Mobile International, MTN GlobalConnect, Orange, STC, Vodafone and the West Indian Ocean Cable Company. 

First announced in 2020, it will be the world's largest subsea cable and connect 33 countries with 46 landing points across Africa, Europe and Asia. It will deliver more than the total combined capacity of all subsea cables serving Africa today. Alcatel Submarine Networks is responsible for manufacturing and deploying the 16-fibre pair, 180Tbps cable, due for final completion in 2024.

Work laying the East African portion of the cable started in late-2022, with the most recent landing made at Port Said in Egypt in April 2023. It landed in Genoa in Italy in April and in Djibouti in May. It is already operational in Egypt, the Republic of Congo and Mozambique. On August 15, the East African portion of the cable went live in Mozambique. It has two landing points in that country — Nacala and Maputo.

The West African trunk will run from South Africa north to the United Kingdom — landing at Muanda in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Pointe-Noire in the Republic of the Congo; Libreville, Gabon; Lagos and Kwa Ibo, Nigeria; Accra, Ghana; Abidjan on the Ivory Coast; Dakar, Senegal; Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands; Carcavelos, Portugal; and Bude in the UK.

In August 2023, the cable landed on the seafront in the municipality of Cacuaco, close to Luanda. The new cable will also improve DRC’s connectivity (until now it had been reliant on just one international cable). On 21 September, it landed on a beach in Muanda, near the mouth of the Congo River in DRC’s Kongo Central province.

The Eastern portion of the cable is expected to make a total of four landings in Saudi Arabia, including Jeddah, Yanbu, Duba, and Al Khobar. The cable is also being extended into the Arabian Gulf region through “2Africa Pearls” cable extensions, including landings in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Oman, the UAE, Pakistan and India.

Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite service is also bringing connectivity to Africa. By July 2023, it was operating in seven African countries — Sierra Leone, Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria, Mozambique, Rwanda and Mauritius. It also expects to begin operating in Tanzania, Burundi, Ghana and the DRC this year and in Uganda, Tunisia and Egypt in 2024. The service is currently banned in three African countries — South Africa, Zimbabwe and Senegal. 

However, when the service was launched in Kenya in July, customers were critical of the high upfront installation cost, which includes a non-refundable booking fee of $99 and $628 for the terminal itself. This is coupled with shipping and installation costs and a monthly subscription fee of $46.

According to Hamilton Research’s Africa Bandwidth Maps, progress in improving the infrastructure has not been limited to undersea cables – the terrestrial fibre network in Africa has expanded considerably in recent years, as well. An additional 300,000km of terrestrial links are proposed, planned or under construction, on top of the one million kilometres already in existence. Africa’s terrestrial network capacity, measured by the kilometre of fibre deployed, has grown at an annual rate of 12.5% over the past decade.

Inter-continental cables will continue to play a significant role in Africa’s Internet future but the rollout of homegrown data centres is important, as well. Storing more data in Africa and positioning data centres closer to end-users will speed up response time and reduce data costs.

South Africa — specifically Johannesburg — has dominated the African data centre landscape for a long time, because of its geographical location, the abundance of subsea cable landing stations and mature corporate culture. However, other hubs are emerging in Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya and Morocco.

Around 70 new data centres were built in Africa between 2017 and 2022 and the region's commercial hosting capacity is now doubling every three years. However, it is estimated that total installed data centre capacity is still only 250MM, with South Africa alone accounting for 180MW. People are forced to rely on data centres thousands of kilometres away from their homes or workplace.

In early-2021, the Africa Data Centres Association estimated that the continent needed 700 data centres with 1,000MW of total installed capacity needed to support the growth potential of the continent’s digital economy. Other experts estimate that capacity must be lifted to 1,200MW by 2030 if the region is to fully develop its digital economy. Demand for data centres across Africa is expected to exceed supply by 300% during the next few years.

Nigeria is seen as one of the markets with the greatest potential. At an estimated $390bn, it has Africa’s biggest economy, with a population of 213m people. However, its total data centre installed capacity stands at a meagre 8MW. An additional 20% of Nigerians are expected to join the Internet during the next three years and it is estimated that the country requires an additional 200MW of data centre capacity.

African countries generally have some of the most expensive mobile data costs in the world, owing to factors such as the lack of infrastructure and high taxation in the telecoms industry. The average cost of 1GB of data in the region was $4.47 in 2022. São Tomé and Príncipe was the most expensive — 1GB costs $29.50. Other countries with high data prices include Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe, Chad, Namibia, Mauritania, Madagascar, Gabon, Cape Verde, Togo, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Botswana, Benin, Mali, Sierra Leone and Comoros. Many of these countries are landlocked. 

Internet traffic is doubling every 18 months in Africa and the new subsea cables will bring much better connectivity to the continent, especially to countries along the coast. However, at least 300mn Africans live in landlocked countries and they are among the poorest states in the world. It is vital that good Internet connectivity reaches those economies, as well.

Jason Mitchell is a British financial journalist, based in Africa, who writes about emerging markets, including Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. He specialises in topics related to wealth creation, mining, capital markets, banking and conservation.

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Internet Africa connectivity landlocked