MOHAMMED ALIYU: Infrastructure investment required to curb internet disruption in Africa
Reliable undersea fibreoptic cables are crucial as demand is rising for fibre across the continent
The recent damage to two critical cables off the coast of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a reminder of the need to scale up investment in the African undersea cable industry. A few months ago a rockfall in the Congo Canyon damaged two essential undersea cables, the West African Cable System (WACS), which Bayobab Group is a part of, and Africa Coast to Europe (ACE).
Together the cables cover 31, 500km, but their length on their own is of little or no significance to ordinary citizens. They are fraction of the cables that facilitate connections between countries. However, if you start thinking of the cables as the umbilical cord that connects Africa and the world, you can start imagining the digital disruption that can leave many frustrated by their slow internet, or complete lack of it.
Since we need this umbilical cord to drive economic growth, improve productivity and efficiency, stay connected and live a modern connected life, an increase in investment that continues to strengthen the African undersea cable industry is paramount.
We alone have more than 16 subsea cables, with direct investment in eight major cables, including WACS and ACE. This contributes about 312,000km of underwater infrastructure to the continent. Thirty-seven countries in Africa have at least one cable landing, with the continent having experienced significant infrastructure development since 2010.
The exponential growth in demand for fibre across Africa correlates with the continent’s rapidly growing digital economy. A report published by Endeavour Nigeria notes that Africa’s digital economy is estimated at $115bn and is expected to grow to $712bn by 2050 (six times the current value). By then, McKinsey predicts that Africa’s population would have doubled to 2.5-billion people.
The bullish outlook on the continent’s digital economy can only be realised through a strong and reliable fibreoptic cable backbone that will ensure that millions of people across the continent have uninterrupted internet connectivity. Dealing with the recent cable breaks, which have disrupted connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa, will require significant effort and collaboration by multiple stakeholders. The WACS consortium dispatched the Orange owned cable laying vessel Léon Thévenin to the fault site and the breakage has since been restored.
Jess Auerbach, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business, has rightly noted that Africa is “radically underserved” in terms of the equipment and expertise needed to repair the ever-growing network of undersea cables on the continent. However, I am encouraged to see partnerships such as WACS, 2Africa and Project East2West, which collectively seek to bridge the digital divide on the continent.
These partnerships continue to roll out thousands of kilometres of fibre and serve as a crucial remedy to this infrastructure deficit by enabling service providers to be rerouted to other linked cables in the event of cable breaks. We are is particularly pleased by the East2West (E2W) project, because not only does it help bridge Africa’s connectivity gap by improving broadband access for landlocked African countries, it offers substantial improvement in data traffic in Africa, which helps boost consumption of local content throughout the region and promote inter-regional exchanges and regional economic development. This means when an Africa-connecting subsea fibre cable breaks, African countries can still enjoy the reliability of internet connectivity as E2W ensures continuity of services.
A recent Financial Times report noted that the supply and installation of the world’s 1.4-million kilometres of fibre cable is dominated by companies from France, the US and Japan. As leaders across the private sector and government, we must therefore engage robustly to ensure that more capacity is built out of the African continent, to support growth and ensure cable breaks such as these two can be addressed expeditiously.
We recognise the tremendous amount of work we still need to embark on to play our role in investing in infrastructure and partnerships that will continue to keep strengthening the umbilical cord of Africa to the rest of the world so that all people, including Africans, continue enjoying the benefits of a modern connected life.
• Aliyu is chief fibreco officer at Bayobab Group.
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