One of the factors in a startup ecosystem’s ability to thrive is internet infrastructure. For technology startups, this is pretty obvious, considering most applications start on the web. But even for non-tech entrepreneurs, the internet is essential for building a brand and communicating with customers. Also, access to education and knowledge sharing on the web gives founders the necessary network and skills to develop their businesses. The struggle in emerging markets, such as those in Africa, is that internet access is widely unavailable. A 2019 report by the International Telecommunications Union estimated that only 28% of Africans were online, leaving many opportunities to increase access for the rest of the continent of 1.2 billion people. Bringing more individuals online creates a more extensive customer base for digital companies, so tech companies have stepped in to help solve the problem.
At first, the initiatives were ambitious. Google’s parent company Alphabet attempted to roll out Loon, a fleet of balloons that beam high-speed internet, in Africa and other parts of the world. The project had some traction, securing approval from Kenya’s government to provide commercial services in 2020, but ultimately shut down in January of this year after struggling to create a sustainable business model and secure partners. Facebook also attempted to partner with SpaceX in 2016 to launch a $200M satellite to beam internet down on the continent. The rocket blew up on the launchpad. Facebook also tried to use drones to provide connectivity to Africa, and SpaceX is pushing forward with its StarLink initiative. StarLink will take some time until its widely distributed, so it seems like traditional fiber optic cables are the solution to closing the current gap.
Last year, Facebook announced a partnership with telecom companies, including China Mobile International, MTN GlobalConnect, Orange, and Vodafone, called 2Africa. The project set out to lay nearly 33,000 miles of cables that will connect Europe, the Middle East, and 16 countries in Africa. On Monday, the group announced they were adding four more connections to the project, including Seychelles, the Comoros Islands, Angola, and the south-eastern part of Nigeria. The group still expects the project to go live in late 2023, in line with its original estimates from its initial announcement last year. It will deliver more than the total combined capacity of all subsea cables serving Africa today.
The move makes Facebook one of the most prominent investors in fiber networks in Africa and builds on several attempts to bring disconnected Africans online. It also shows the increased efforts of technology companies investing in subsea cables, an initiative initially undertaken by telecom companies. Last year, Google announced a subsea cable to connect Europe and Africa, and according to TeleGeography, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon now own or lease nearly 50% of undersea bandwidth. Also, according to Bloomberg, Facebook and Google alone are involved in 80% of all investments in trans-Atlantic deep-sea cables in the last few years. China’s Huawei has also gotten into the mix, completing a cable between Brazil and Cameroon in late 2018. Last year, the company began work on a line connecting Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Ultimately, these initiatives will be good for connecting more Africans and creating more opportunities for education, business, and entrepreneurship on the continent, which creates long-term economic impact. Keep an eye out on Africa over the next decade.