Google Equiano: The Internet giant is betting big on Africa with its latest mega-project

The cable’s landing, which ran thousands of miles along the bottom of the ocean, had been delayed for months due to harsh conditions and Covid-19. But now it was here, a couple of centimeters wide and already covered in sand. A welcoming party stood on the beach and posed for pictures before the cable continued 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 St Helena and Namibia, the 15,000 kilometer long cable is designed to deliver high-speed broadband along the west coast of Africa. The capacity, a whopping 144 terabits per second, is 20 times greater than the previous cable serving the region and can increase internet speed more than fivefold in some countries.

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

Barney Harmse was among them on the beach in Swakopmund when the cable landed. He is the CEO of telecommunications company Paratus Group, which worked with Telecom Namibia to deliver the country’s 500 kilometer branch of the cable. “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.”

Closing the digital divide

Telecommunications has come a long way since the first submarine telegraph cable in 1858. As of 2021, there were over 1.3 million kilometers of submarine cable around the world, carrying over 95% of intercontinental internet traffic. But internet access is still very patchy. In sub-Saharan Africa, internet usage is the lowest of any region in the world, broadband coverage is significantly lower than 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 good quality, affordable broadband across Africa by 2030 will cost an estimated $109 billion, according to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. The economic consequences of this investment will be large. Fewer than 25% of Africans use the internet, but if the percentage were raised to 75% (about the same as Cuba or Moldova) it could increase job creation by nine percent, it says.
Google would not disclose the total value of the 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 investments in startups.
Paratus Group CEO Barney Harmse poses with the Namibian branch of Equiano on July 1, 2022.
The cable is scheduled to start carrying traffic at the beginning of 2023, says Paratus. According to a report commissioned by Google, Equiano will cause data prices to fall 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 Internet access, societies can modernize, people can acquire new skills and knowledge that can open doors to new job opportunities, and businesses and governments can increase productivity and uncover new revenue streams as a result of digital transformation,” said Bikash Koley. Google’s vice president of global networks, in a statement to CNN.

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

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“We invest daily to increase the infrastructure and capacity of our landlocked neighbours,” adds Harmse. “It’s not a simple project with a specific start and stop (point) … it’s like a beast — an organism you need to keep feeding.”

Some of the beneficiaries of the extension are students. Paratus says it has installed internet connections in educational institutions that collectively teach over 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

There are more cables to come — work is underway on 2Africa, a 45,000-kilometer undersea cable circling the African continent and connecting 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 encircle Africa and connect Europe and Asia, landed in Genoa, Italy earlier this year.

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

Alan Mauldin, research director at 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 it was last year.

While intercontinental cables will continue to play a significant role in Africa’s internet future, so will homegrown data centers. Storing more of the internet’s data in Africa and positioning data centers closer to end users will increase response times and reduce data costs, Harmse explains. “It’s the next big thing,” he says, adding that Paratu’s latest data center, an $8 million project in Namibia’s capital Windhoek, will be completed in August.

Meanwhile, Equiano continues its journey towards South Africa, its final destination, while engineers work to connect the branches of West Africa’s ever-expanding network.

“The race is on,” says Harmse. “Africa is the continent of connecting.”

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