October 2, 2022

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.

Named after the 18th-century Nigerian-born author and abolitionist Olaudah Equianocable could 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 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

Telecommunications has come a long way since the first undersea telegraph cable in 1858. As of 2021 they were over 1.3 million kilometers of the undersea cable around the world, which carries over 95% of intercontinental internet traffic. But access to the Internet is still highly uneven. In sub-Saharan Africa, internet usage is the lowest of any other 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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Providing universal good-quality, affordable broadband across Africa by 2030 will cost approx. 109 billion dollars, according to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. The economic impact of this investment would be profound. Less than 25% of Africans use the internet, but if the percentage increased to 75% (about the same as Cuba or Moldova) could increase job creation by nine percentsays.
Google would 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 dollars in Africa’s digital transformation, including connectivity and investment in start-ups.
Paratus Group CEO Barney Harmse poses with the Equiano branch in Namibia on July 1, 2022.
The cable is scheduled to begin carrying traffic in early 2023, Paratus says. According a report commissioned by GoogleEquiano will cause data prices to drop between 16% and 21% in South Africa, Namibia and Nigeria, and in the latter could lead to the creation of 1.6 million jobs, due to the expansion of the digital economy and regional sectors .

“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.

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“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.”

Some of the beneficiaries of this extension are students. Paratus says it has installed internet connections in educational facilities collectively teaching more than 10,000 students in Namibia as part of EduVision program, which provides smart boards and e-learning technology to schools, especially in rural areas.

The struggle to connect

More cables to come — work underway at 2Africa, a 45,000 km 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 circle Africa and connect to 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 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.”

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