Running thousands of miles on the ocean floor, the landing of the cable was delayed for months due to rough conditions and Covid-19. But now here it was two inches wide and already covered with sand. A welcome party stood on the beach and posed for photos before continuing the cable inland. Equiano had arrived at last.
Equiano is the latest subsea internet cable financed by Google. Starting in Portugal and eventually ending in South Africa, the 15,000-kilometer (9,320-mile) cable is designed to deliver high-speed broadband along Africa’s west coast, with branches to Nigeria, Togo, St. Helena Island, and Namibia. . Its capacity, at a whopping 144 terabits per second, is 20 times that of previous cables serving the region, and can increase internet speeds by five times in some countries.
Barney Harmsey was on the beach at Swakopmund when the cable went down. He is the CEO of telecommunications company Paratus Group, which worked with Telecom Namibia to deliver a branch of the country’s 500-kilometer cable. “We’re excited as hell, I have to say,” he told CNN before landing. “It’s going to have a huge impact on our part of the world.”
Closing the digital divide
“With the growth of the Internet, societies can modernize, people can acquire new skills and knowledge that can open doors to new employment opportunities, and businesses and governments can increase productivity and unlock new revenue streams as a result of digital transformation,” said Bikash Kole, 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 Namibian branch to its network that spans Angola, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These countries will have an “immediate benefit” once the cable comes online, he says.
“We are investing every day to build infrastructure and capacity in our landlocked neighbors,” adds Harmsey. “It’s not a single project with a specific start and stop (point) … it’s like an animal — an organism that we have to keep feeding.”
A race to connect
Both cables and more will be needed as the continent grows internet usage and older cables become obsolete or reach the end of their operational life.
Alan Mauldin, research director at telecoms market research firm TeleGeography, says demand for international bandwidth in Africa has tripled between 2018 and 2021, and by 2028 demand will be 16 times higher than last year.
While intercontinental cables will continue to play an important role in Africa’s Internet future, so will indigenous data centers. Storing more of Africa’s internet data and placing data centers closer to end users will speed up response times and reduce data costs, Harmsey explains. “This is 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 connect its branches to the ever-growing West African network.
“The race is on,” says Harmsey. “Africa is the continent to add.”