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Edge gamble in Africa: can Facebook and other backers pull off a big new submarine cable?

Edge gamble in Africa: can Facebook and other backers pull off a big new submarine cable?

Submarine cable-laying is back in the news and this latest project will see Facebook leading an effort called 2Africa, which when done will almost circle Africa and hopefully prompt a revolution in internet and edge infrastructure services.

2Africa is being built by Facebook, West Indian Ocean Cable Co. and telecommunications firms Vodafone, MTN Group, China Mobile, WIOCC, Orange, Telecom Egypt and Saudi Telecom. It reportedly will cost almost $1 billion.

According to Facebook, “In the countries where the 2Africa cable lands, service providers will obtain capacity in carrier-neutral data centers and open-access cable landing stations on a fair and equitable basis.”

Executives have pointed out that only about 25% of Africa’s 3.5 billion people have access to the Internet. That means billions of potential new Facebook profiles. Beyond that, though, Facebook’s statement means the company and other partners are building a network that will bring traffic to any company or service provider that wants to interconnect, not just those who are funding the project.

Vodafone’s director of carrier services has played up the opportunity to “build a modern digital society.” About that, he might want to speak with Bill Gates, whose earliest altruistic venture – dropping off PCs in African nations to raise standards of living – underdelivered.

Still, Bloomberg reported one year ago that money for subsea cable has reached its highest level since the turn of the century.

The planned 37,000-mile 2Africa is one of the new projects. A map of cables and planned construction shows that the continent has not been ignored by the telecom and submarine cable industry, but overall, Africa’s infrastructure is less robust than what has been developed in the North Atlantic and the northern Pacific — or even the coast of Brazil.

The line heads from the UK, runs south, around the Horn of Africa and back up to Spain. In Africa alone, it will make 21 landings in 16 nations. A total of 23 nations will be served directly by the cable.

Growing digital infrastructure needs in Africa

Amazon Web Services is expanding in Africa, too. It has recently opened its first AWS Region there, in Cape Town, South Africa, with three Availability Zones. Amazon continues efforts to establish a stronger cloud presence in Africa, developing networking technologies and software at its Cape Town development center.

The investments in digital infrastructure show Africa’s potential for growth.

A 2020 white paper published by the Africa Data Centres Association quotes market research firm Xalam Analytics data showing room for growth.

According to the report, there are about 80 purpose-built multi-tenant data centers that meet at least Tier III standards on the continent. The paper says there was a lull in facility construction in 2018 and 2019, but “at least 20 new dedicated facilities will come to market this year and next.”

Analyst Perspective

The meeting points where subsea networks reach land and connect other networks, cloud and service providers are key pieces of real estate.

Services at this nexus of subsea and terrestrial networks exist as a form of edge services that data center industry pioneer Hunter Newby dubbed “the continental edge.” This physical location can offer a mix of aggregation and access edge services.  Like edge computing in general, there’s significant opportunity in meeting the need for digital infrastructure at the continental edge, one which Facebook and its partners are going to help open up to a wider audience through the 2Africa undertaking.

Jim Davis, Principal Analyst, Edge Research Group

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