Running for thousands of miles along the bottom of the sea, the cable’s landing had been delayed for months by rough conditions and Covid-19. But now here it was, a couple of inches wide and already covered in sand. A welcome party stood on the beach and posed for photos before the cable continued inland. Equiano had finally arrived.
Equiano is the latest subsea internet cable financed by Google. Starting in Portugal and eventually ending in South Africa, with branches to Nigeria, Togo, the islands of St Helena, and Namibia, the 15,000-kilometer (9,320-mile) cable is designed to deliver high-speed broadband along the west coast of Africa. Its capacity, a whopping 144 terabits per second, is 20 times that of the previous cable serving the region and could increase internet speeds more than fivefold in some countries.
Barney Harmse was among those on the beach in Swakopmund when the cable landed. He is the CEO of telecommunication company Paratus Group, which worked alongside Telecom Namibia to deliver the country’s 500-kilometer branch of the cable. “We’re excited as hell, I must say,” he told CNN prior to the landing. “It’s going to have an enormous impact on our part of the world.”
Closing the digital divide
“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 vice president of global networking, in a statement to CNN.
Access does not stop at coastal nations. Harmse says Paratus will connect the Namibian branch of Equiano to its network that spans 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.
“We are investing daily to increase infrastructure and capacity going into our landlocked neighbors,” Harmse adds. “It’s not a single project with a specific start and stop (point) … it’s like a beast — an organism that you need to keep on feeding.”
The race to connect
The continent will need both cables and more as internet use grows, and older cables become obsolete or reach the end of their operational lifetime.
Alan Mauldin, research director 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 greater than it was last year.
While intercontinental cables will continue to play a significant role in Africa’s internet future, so too will homegrown data centers. Storing more of the internet’s data in Africa and positioning data centers closer to end users will speed up response time and decreases data costs, explains Harmse. “It’s the next big thing,” he says, adding that Paratus’ latest data center, an $8 million project in Namibia’s capital Windhoek, will be completed in August.
In the meantime, Equiano continues its journey towards South Africa, its final destination, while engineers work to link its branches to Western Africa’s ever-growing network.
“The race is on,” says Harmse. “Africa is the continent to connect.”