Running for thousands of miles along the seabed, the landing of the cable had been delayed for months due to difficult 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 photographs before the cable continued inland. Equiano had finally arrived.
Equiano is the latest undersea internet cable funded by Google. Starting in Portugal and eventually ending in South Africa, with branches in Nigeria, Togo, the Saint Helena Islands and Namibia, the 15,000 km (9,320 mi) cable is designed to provide high-speed broadband across the western coast of Africa. Its capacity, a whopping 144 terabits per second, is 20 times greater than the previous cable serving the region and could increase internet speeds more than fivefold in some countries.
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 alongside Telecom Namibia to deliver the country’s 500km cable. “We’re 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 increased access to the internet, 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 networking, in a statement to CNN.
Access does not stop at coastal nations. Harmse says Paratus will connect Equiano’s branch in Namibia with its network spanning Angola, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Those countries “will have an immediate benefit” when the cable comes online, he says.
“We are investing every day to increase the infrastructure and capacity going to our landlocked neighbors,” adds Harmse. “It’s not a single project with a specific beginning and stop (point) … it’s like a beast — an organism that you have to keep feeding.”
The struggle to connect
The continent will need both cables and more as internet usage increases and older cables become obsolete or reach the end of their useful lives.
Alan Mauldin, director of research at telecoms 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 it was last year.
While transcontinental cables will continue to play an important role in Africa’s Internet future, so will domestic data centers. Storing more Internet data in Africa and placing data centers closer to end users will speed up response time and reduce data costs, Harmse explains. “It’s the next big thing,” he says, adding that Paratus’ latest data center, an $8 million project in the Namibian capital Windhoek, will be completed in August.
In the meantime, Equiano continues its journey to South Africa, its final destination, while engineers work to connect its branches to the ever-expanding West African network.
“The fight is on,” says Harmse. “Africa is the continent that needs to be connected.”