At the beginning of this month (August 2022), Google’s giant Equiano internet underwater fibre cable landed on the coast of South Africa essentially meaning the cable had been completed. The ambitious nature of the cable is betrayed by the name Equiano after the famous Nigerian writer Olaudah Equiano who was instrumental in ending the slave trade. Africa remains in the shackles of slow internet and Africans are slaves to expensive internet to this day. Will Equiano somehow change that?
A brief intro to undersea cables and the African internet setup
The way the internet works is simple because at its heart the internet is simple. The internet is simply a series of computers connected together via various physical and wireless connections. You connect to your internet service provider via LTE, ADSL, fibre or God forbid VSAT. Your internet service provider is in turn connected to an internet access provider via fibre backhaul. That internet access provider, for example, Liquid Intelligent, is in turn connected to other network providers on other continents, typically Europe via undersea fibre cables such as Equiano.
That’s how the internet generally works in just about every other country but there are certain factors that make Zimbabwe and Africa unique:
- Africans are mostly consumers on the internet. We don’t have a lot of in-country content at all. Top visited sites in Zimbabwe include Google Search, YouTube, Facebook, Gmail, Wikipedia and others. More often than not every time you are doing stuff on the internet you are using international bandwidth. In contrast for U.S and European and customer’s network traffic is split between foreign and domestic consumption
- Secondly, despite accelerated urbanisation the bulk of Zimbabwe and Africa’s population is rural. While it is economic to offer services such as fibre to the home to urban populations, the dispersed nature of rural populations means that the only viable option to provide the internet in these areas is to use wireless technology.
There are other issues we can look at but generally, these two are the problems facing the African and Zimbabwean internet at the moment.
Flogging a mostly dead horse
As already outlined above, Zimbabwe and other countries consume a lot of international bandwidth while using Google, Facebook and Cloudflare services. Since these three are the main beneficiaries of this consumption pattern it is not surprising that the first two have been working on undersea cables along the West African coast. Cloudflare on the other hand has been making a concerted effort to peer with as many local ISPs as it can.
On paper, this is all we need to make our internet cheaper given our international bandwidth requirements. I mean it is basic supply and demand, right? If supplied bandwidth increases this ought to lead to a reduction in data prices one would assume. Unfortunately, as we will demonstrate shortly that is not going to be the case. Google’s undersea cable is unlikely to lead to a reduction in data prices in Zimbabwe or Africa.
It is not difficult to understand why. Africa is currently only using a fraction of its international bandwidth capacity that is available to it through the cables already lit. Our high data prices are largely a result of last mile issues and not due to expensive international bandwidth. Google’s undersea cable will no doubt have a chilling effect on prices as current sea cable providers will be forced to lower costs and pass these on to internet service providers. Such a price reduction is unlikely to be significant unless Google heavily subsidises its offerings to providers. Google and Facebook are solving a problem that has already been solved I am afraid.
That does not mean that the international undersea cable for Southern Africa is as good as it can be. Zimbabwe would benefit from more cables obviously but it would benefit more if we got the right type of cables. At the moment Southern Africa would benefit from more Asian and American cables both of which are in short supply something like SACs would shorten the distance between SADC and America. The worst thing you can do in Zimbabwe at the moment is trying to connect to a computer in Asia or Oceania.
The real African source of internet problems in Zimbabwe and Africa
Last mile solutions are the real source of internet data price problems in Africa. The majority of internet users connect using their mobile network operators through expensive prepaid data bundles. Mobile internet is generally more expensive compared to other solutions. It is small wonder therefore that the internet is expensive in Africa.
As already said the bulk of the population in Africa lives in dispersed rural settlements. It is simply not feasible to try and connect all these people to the internet using physical copper and fibre connections as it would be expensive. The populations tend to be poor and mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture. Even if you erect an LTE base station the internet would be too expensive as you would expect the provider would want to at least break even. With more and more people moving to urban areas there is even less incentive to erect modern 4G or 5G base stations in these areas.
But I sincerely believe operators are missing an opportunity here. There is an interesting migration pattern I have observed. In the older generation, our parents and grandparents are remaining behind to till the land as they have done while the young leave for towns and cities. This means that those who leave will need to keep in touch with those who stay behind. Rural base stations can be used as loss leaders of sorts. MNOs need to view rural base stations not in isolation but as an essential pair to urban base stations. They are needed to increase data consumption via services like video chat and WhatsApp.
Africa does not have legacy copper cables running to each home from some bygone cable TV era. Landline phones were a rare privilege that never really went beyond old urban surbubs. Fibre has gone the same way and even to this day, ISPs do not even sell gigabit fibre to businesses and homes unless you specifically request it in which case you have to be ready to give up your firstborn in return. Providers have shown little interest in expanding beyond this because of associated costs and risks. Generally, Zimbabwean ISPs favour an approach where they quickly recoup their capital expenditure.
Mobile network operators and indeed even internet providers have chosen instead to chase the latest technology of the day without really investing in proven technologies. We barely got the 3G speeds everyone else was getting elsewhere and they hoped onto the 4G bandwagon. A few hundred 4G base stations later and now they are harping about 5G and hawking expensive 5G equipment even though they have only a couple of 5G base stations.
Each move to new technology comes with huge capital expenditure commitments and moving quickly from one technology to another means that the payback period for this equipment is even shorter. Customers have to bear all the costs associated with such a shift. What we need is a Raynair of the internet in Zimbabwe. A sensible company that is happy to stick with technologies like 4G and ADSL but focuses on providing affordable data plans. Google would do well to be part of that. This would benefit them and Facebook too. It would really bring them what they want, cheaper internet.
There is little chance of that happening. Google would rather invest in loony projects like fancy balloons that rise into the stratosphere than be caught doing something as unsexy as running an old-school ISP in the savannah. Perhaps they can create lasers to link base stations in rural areas and provide laser backhaul because the Project Taara laser they build in the DRC is doing more to reduce data costs in Africa than a new undersea cable will.