Since the 1990s, several local and international projects by governments, telecommunications companies and development organizations have been launched to improve the infrastructure of internet networks in Africa.
Still, Africa continues to have the lowest internet penetration rate, below 40%, compared to 58% globally. Only seven African countries enter the top one hundred places in the Networked Readiness Index, the first in position 72.
Now, tech giants like Google and Facebook, whose headquarters are in Silicon Valley, California, Undos, could lead the race to invest in internet infrastructure in Africa. What are these technological giants at stake to want to become leaders of the continent's digital future?
Before these big companies appeared, other internet infrastructure projects implemented in Africa attempted to bring internet connectivity to all Africans. For example, the African Union launched the e-Africa program, the US agency for international development (USAID) dedicated 15 million dollars to its Leland project, the African Development Bank supported the establishment of the African Underwater Wiring System Oriental, and the World Bank allocated about 424 million.
All of these projects had the collective objective of building internet infrastructures that would connect all African countries to each other and to the rest of the world through existing or planned submarine and land cable systems.
Africa has the world's largest growth in mobile phone penetration, making the continent an attractive market for global tech companies like Google and Facebook.
Silicon Valley tech companies take the lead in Africa
Over the years, the private sector – especially telecommunications companies – has led the voice in the expansion of internet infrastructure in the continent, but in recent years, they are the million-dollar companies in Silicon Valley those that have dominated this expansion.
Google has been the first technology company not specialized in telecommunications that has not only invested in a broadband submarine cable system, but has also built a private intercontinental cable.
In 2011, Google started an internet project, CSquared, to build metropolitan fiber optic networks, funded by mobile network operators and internet providers with a wholesale model.
The project – today an independent commercial company – partnered with Mitsui & Co. (Japan), Convergence Partners (South Africa) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC, World Bank Group), with a consolidated fund of one hundred million dollars to invest in infrastructure broadband internet in Africa.
Currently, the technology company owns and operates more than 890 km of metropolitan fiber in the cities of Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda, more than 1070 km of fiber in three cities in Ghana, and 180 km in Monrovia, Liberia.
Google also operates its own private internet infrastructure projects in Africa, such as the Loon Project, currently operating in Kenya, and Equiano (named after Nigerian writer and ex-slave Olaudah Equiano), a fiber-optic submarine cabling infrastructure that will connect Africa. and Europe when completed in 2021.
It is clear that Google intends to lead the race to invest in infrastructure in Africa, but Facebook also appears to be stiff competition, despite failed attempts to use solar-powered drones to provide internet access.
Facebook tried other alternatives to connect Africans to the internet through its Freebasics application, in which the company partnered with telecommunications providers in developing countries to allow users to access several pre-selected websites – including Facebook – without using extra data. Freebasis was banned in India, and received loathsome criticism from civil organizations, including Global Voices, for being a means of collecting user data without actually connecting the “disconnected” to the internet.
Before, Facebook has focused above all on taking advantage of existing internet infrastructures in advanced economies, and not investing in new ones. For example, Facebook partnered with Internet society to provide the internet to rural communities in Africa with Internet Exchange Points (IXP), access points where international and local networks, internet service providers and content providers interconnect their networks instead of using third party networks.
The company also implemented its Express Wifi project in Africa, where Facebook provides an extensive wifi platform that can be used by its partners (telecommunications operators) to better manage and increase its wireless signal offering to local communities.
In 2013, Mark Zuckerberg explained in an essay why, economically speaking, it makes no sense to invest in infrastructure that provides the internet to developing countries.
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.
Although the cost of building and maintaining networks makes providing full internet access to the world extremely expensive, an effort focused on reducing the cost of providing data and developing more efficient applications would make it economically feasible to provide a set of basic internet services. free of charge to those who cannot afford it.
However, Facebook is now spending millions of dollars building internet infrastructure in developing countries, including African countries. Zuckerberg understood that to “beat” Google in this race, you need to be a real athlete.
In 2019, Facebook partnered with Main One to build a terrestrial infrastructure consisting of 750 km of open access fiber optics in Nigeria, and joined Airtel to build 800 km of fiber connection in Uganda and 100 km of connection per fiber in South Africa.
On May 13, Facebook announced the 2Africa project, one of the company's largest investments in internet infrastructure in Africa. The project aims to build what is probably the largest submarine fiber optic cable to provide the Internet to Africa and the Middle East. It is a collaboration of Facebook, China Mobile International, MTN GlobalConnect (branch of the South African group MTN), the French telecommunications multinational Orange, the Saudi-based telecommunications company STC, Telecom Egypt, the British multinational telecommunications company Vodafone and the West Indian Ocean Cable Company. Together, these companies will build 37,000 km of cables that will interconnect Europe (to the east, by Egypt), the Middle East (by Saudi Arabia) and 21 points from 16 countries in Africa.
The project is expected to be completed in 2023-2024.
What do the tech giants gain?
Aside from these tech giants, who can get Africa to connect to the internet at top speed without delay?
But these tech giants don't offer gifts worth billions without expecting anything in return.
Yomi Kazeem, author of Quartz, points out the most obvious economic reason for these great companies. “The millions of people who will access the network as a result also represent a considerable market target for their ever-growing provision of advertising products and services,” he wrote.
Also, as the number of people without an internet connection is shrinking in Europe and America, tech companies are looking to find other emerging, low-income markets to increase their profits and expand their market share.
For example, over 70% of Facebook's 2.3 billion monthly active users live in Africa and Asia, while Google leads the search engine market in Africa by 90%. In Kenya, more than half of the country's mobile phone traffic passes through applications belonging to Facebook and Google.
The two companies also get most of their advertising benefits (ads account for 98% of Facebook revenue and 85% of Google), and their profitability depends on their ability to increase the number of users or the benefits they each of them generates them.
Should Africa worry? Yes.
In Africa, where some 33 countries do not have data protection laws, reliance on global technology companies for internet provision is a major challenge.
So far, lawmakers have done little to reach out and collaborate with tech companies to meet these challenges.
Thus, Africa is vulnerable to misinformation, misinformation, market monopolies, and the exploitation and misuse of personal data, as evidenced, for example, in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The Pathways for Prosperity Commission rightly points out that in developing countries, “there is almost no debate about digital design and use about development policy making. The potential regulatory capacity of governments is largely focused on managing the telecommunications market, controlling internet connections with the outside world, and managing the ecosystem of domestic digital offerings. ”
Facebook has been very apathetic when it comes to responding to insulting and violent content published on its platforms. Although the company receives warnings, it ignores them, as recently seen with the tweet of US President Donald Trump about the protests. #BlackLivesMatter in United States. While Twitter publicly flagged the tweet for violating its rules, Facebook did not react. 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.
I am simply convinced that Facebook should not be the arbiter of truth in everything people say online. Private companies probably shouldn't be, and especially those platform companies shouldn't be in a position to do that.
Governments, should they lead or associate with technology companies?
Developing country governments do not seem to prioritize internet access in their policies. In an ideal world, governments could negotiate with tech companies, but without a framework to start the talks, the planned digital policies or laws are unrealistic.
In a report published in 2019 by the Center for Global Development, the authors caution:
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.
However, developing such a framework will not be easy, as it will require finding ways to 1) estimate the value of disparate pieces of personal data whose value depends on whether they can be combined with other data to produce useful information, and 2) tracking the data value for many uses.
African governments must admit that the internet is today a global public good and a human right that brings enormous social and economic benefits to its users. Without a more realistic and comprehensive digital regulatory framework and policies for these tech companies, their digital platforms will be used to spread violence and insults rather than supporting innovation and economic growth.