Since the 1990s, several local and international efforts have been made by governments, telecommunications firms and development organizations to improve internet infrastructure networks in Africa.
Yet, Africa still has the lowest internet penetration rate at below 40 percent compared to the global average of 58 percent in the world. Only seven African countries in the 2019 Networked Readiness Index top 100 rankings — with none in the top 70.
Now, tech giants like Google and Facebook, based in the United States’ Silicon Valley, in California, lead the race to invest in internet infrastructure in Africa. What’s at stake for these tech giants to take such a lead in Africa’s digital future?
Before these tech giants came along, other internet infrastructure projects implemented in Africa intended to widen internet connectivity for all Africans. For example, the African Union established the e-Africa program, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) committed $15 million under its Leland project, the African Development Bank supported the establishment of the East Africa Submarine Cable System and the World Bank committed about $424 million.
All projects had a collective goal to build internet infrastructure that connects all African countries to each other and the rest of the world through existing and planned submarine and terrestrial cable systems.
Africa has the world's fastest growth in terms of mobile phone penetration, making the continent “business attractive” to global tech companies like Google and Facebook.
Silicon Valley tech companies take the lead in Africa
Over the years, the private sector — mostly telecommunications — has driven internet infrastructure expansion on the continent, but billion-dollar tech companies in Silicon Valley have dominated this expansion over the last few years.
Google is the first tech and non-telecommunication company not only to invest in a high-bandwidth subsea cable system but also to build a private intercontinental cable.
In 2011, Google started an internal project, CSquared, to build metropolitan fiber-optic networks, which is leased by Mobile Network Operators and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on a wholesale model.
The project — now an independent and commercially driven company — has partnered with Mitsui & Co. (Japan), Convergence Partners (South Africa) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC, World Bank Group), under a consolidated fund of $100 million, to invest in broadband internet infrastructure in Africa.
The tech company now owns and operates over 890 kilometers of metropolitan fiber in the cities of Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; more than 1070 kilometers of fiber in three cities in Ghana and 180 kilometers in Monrovia, Liberia.
Google also operates its own private internet infrastructure projects in Africa, including Project Loon, currently operating in Kenya, and Equiano (named after the Nigerian writer and former slave Olaudah Equiano) — a subsea fiber optic internet infrastructure that will connect Africa and Europe when completed in 2021.
Clearly, Google intends to lead the race in investing in infrastructure in Africa, but Facebook also seems to be a fierce competitor, despite the failed attempts to use solar-powered internet drones to provide internet access.
Facebook tried alternative options to connect Africans to the internet via its Freebasics application, in which the company partnered with telecom providers in developing countries to let users access a pre-selected number of sites, including Facebook, without using any extra data. Freebasics was banned in India and heavily criticized by civil societies, including Global Voices, for being a medium to collect user data and did not actually connect the “unconnected” to the internet.
In the past, Facebook largely focused on leveraging existing internet infrastructures in advanced economies rather than investing in new ones. For example, Facebook partnered with Internet Society to provide internet to rural communities in Africa by using Internet Exchange Points (IXPs)— an access point where multiple local and international networks, ISPs, and content providers interconnect their networks instead of through third-party networks.
The company also implemented its Express Wifi project in Africa, where Facebook provides a comprehensive Wi-Fi platform that partners (telecom operators) can leverage to better manage and grow their Wi-Fi offering to local communities.
In 2013, Mark Zuckerberg explained in an essay why it does not make economic sense to invest in building internet infrastructure in the developing countries to provide internet:
Although the cost of building and maintaining networks made it prohibitively expensive to provide full internet access to everyone in the world, a focused effort on reducing the cost of delivering data and building more efficient apps would make it economically feasible to provide a set of basic online services for free to those who could not afford them.
Yet, Facebook has now committed several millions of dollars to build internet infrastructure in developing countries — including Africa. Zuckerberg understood that to “beat” Google in this race, it needed to be a real athlete.
Last year, Facebook partnered with Main One to build a 750-kilometer terrestrial open-access fiber optic internet infrastructure in Nigeria, partnered with Airtel to build an 800-kilometer fiber connection in Uganda, and a 100-kilometer fiber connection in South Africa.
On May 13, Facebook announced 2Africa — one of the company's hugest investments yet in building internet infrastructure in Africa. The project intends to build arguably the largest internet submarine fiber-optic cable to provide internet to Africa and the Middle East. The partnership includes Facebook, China Mobile International, MTN GlobalConnect (a branch of the South African MTN group), French multinational telecommunications corporation Orange, Saudi Arabia-based telecom firm STC, Telecom Egypt, British multinational telecommunications company Vodafone, and West Indian Ocean Cable Company. Together, they will build 37,000- kilometer-long cables that will interconnect Europe (eastward via Egypt), the Middle East (via Saudi Arabia), and 21 landings in 16 countries in Africa.
The project is expected to be completed by 2023-2024.
What’s in it for tech giants?
Aside from these tech giants, who else can ensure that Africa gets connected to the internet at the fastest pace without delays?
But these tech giants do not offer freebies worth billions without expecting returns.
Quartz writer Yomi Kazeem highlights the obvious profit motive of these tech companies. “The tens of millions of people who will come online as a result also represent a larger target market for their ever-growing cache of products and advertising services,” he wrote.
Also, as the number of people disconnected from the internet dwindles in Europe and the Americas, tech companies are eager to seek other emerging and lower-income markets to increase their revenue and expand their market share.
For example, over 70 percent of Facebook’s 2.3 billion monthly active users live in Africa and Asia, while Google has an over 90 percent lead in the search engine market share in Africa. In Kenya, more than half of the country's mobile traffic is directed through applications owned by Facebook and Google.
The two companies also derive most of their revenue from advertising (ads provide 98 percent of Facebook revenue and 85 percent of Google) — their profitability depends on increasing the number of users or the revenue they generate from each.
Should Africa be concerned? Yes.
In Africa, where about 33 countries do not have data privacy laws, overreliance on global tech companies to provide internet poses great challenges.
Policymakers have so far done very little to approach and engage with tech companies to address these challenges.
Africa is therefore vulnerable to mass mis- and disinformation, market monopolization, exploitation and misuse of personal data, as evidenced, for example, by the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Pathways for Prosperity Commission rightfully points out that in developing countries, “digital design and usage is almost entirely absent from discussions about development policymaking. Governments’ potential regulatory levers mostly revolve around managing the telecommunications market, controlling the internet connection to the outside world and stewarding the ecosystem of domestic digital offerings.”
Facebook has been very lackadaisical in responding to abuse and violent content shared on its platforms. Although the company receives warnings, it does little to address them, as seen recently with US President Donald Trump's recent violent tweet about the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protest in the United States. While Twitter publicly flagged the tweet for violating its rules, Facebook did not. Zuckerberg explained:
I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.
Should governments lead — or engage with tech companies?
Governments in developing countries do not seem to prioritize internet access in their policies. Ideally, governments could negotiate with tech companies, but without a framework to initiate the conversation, anticipated digital policies or laws are not realistic.
In a 2019 report published by the Center for Global Development, the authors warn:
Developing such a framework will not be easy, however, as it will require finding ways to (1) estimate the worth of disparate pieces of personal data whose value depends on being combined with other data to produce useful information and (2) track the value of data across multiple uses.
African governments must admit that the internet is now a global public good and a human right that provides tremendous social and economic benefits for its users. Without a comprehensive and more realistic digital regulatory framework and policy for these tech companies, their digital platforms will be irresponsibly used to spearhead violence and abuse instead of supporting economic growth and innovation.