Meet Facebook, Sub-Saharan Africa’s Newest Telecom Infrastructure Investor
Facebook’s gathering presence as a direct investor in telecommunications infrastructure across sub-Saharan Africa could add close to $60 billion in GDP to the region over the next five years. So goes one of the key findings of a report released this summer from the IT business consultancy firm Analysys Mason.
The firm’s analysis has estimated the economic impact of Facebook’s initiatives at USD $57.6 billion in added GDP across sub-Saharan Africa between 2020 and 2024, as internet take-up rates and data traffic increase due to investments in broader coverage, better connection quality and affordability.
Mobile networks are currently unavailable to 9% of the region’s population, the report noted, with another 20% only having access to low-speed (2G) mobile connectivity).
Data speeds that would make the content more relevant to potential mobile consumers are out of economic reach for many. Continent-wide, 1GB of data accounted for 8% of average income at the end of 2017, compared to an average of 2.7% in the Americans and 1.5% in Asia. Consortia including the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) define Internet service as “affordable” if the price of 1GB of data does not exceed 2% of per capita gross national income (GNI).
Analysys Mason is forecasting a rise in internet traffic across sub-Saharan Africa of 9% by 2024 (compared to expected rates had this infrastructure not been in place), increasing the region’s GDP-per-capita by an estimated 0.12 percentage points in each of the next five years.
The report pointed to Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya as the countries best positioned to benefit directly from these investments, given that they host Facebook’s points of presence (PoPs), or physical points for network access by remote users.
Why is Facebook so favorably situated to become an infrastructure facilitator — and sometime direct investor — in sub-Saharan Africa’s online migration? Simply put, it’s already a primary mover of data traffic. Facebook apps are estimated to account for approximately 20% of all Internet traffic in the region, while 70% of Facebook traffic is served from inside the region.
Of the close to $60 billion in positive GDP impact from Facebook, $53.4 billion is projected to come just from Facebook’s investments in edge computing networks. These networks store content and minimize the distance and cost of transporting content to end users. Examples of the technical infrastructure of edge computing in which Facebook has been investing heavily include PoPs, along with Internet exchange points (IXPs) (physical locations that host the exchange of local internet traffic), and — significantly — submarine fiberoptic cables.
Over 80% of international submarine cable capacity currently serving sub-Saharan Africa connects to Europe. While there are currently 18 existing and planned submarine cables connecting to sub-Saharan Africa, the report noted, limited existing capacity in Africa has kept bandwidth prices high, especially for landlocked countries that must then invest in overland (terrestrial) fiber across international borders to connect to submarine cable landing stations.
In May of this year, Facebook along with seven partners, including China Mobile, MTN Global Connect, Telecom Egypt, Vodafone, and the West Indian Ocean Cable Company (WIOCC), announced the formation of a new submarine cable joint venture called 2Africa to connect 23 countries in the sub-Saharan Africa and MENA regions. The 37,000-km long cable is nearly equal to the circumference of the Earth, and upon its anticipated completion in 2023–2024, is expected to provide nearly three times the total network capacity of all subsea cables currently serving Africa.
Prior to 2Africa, Facebook had announced partial ownership of ten submarine cables worldwide, either live or in development. For cables developed through a consortium model, traffic is not limited to that of Facebook and its partners, but also for other parties that purchase or lease capacity on the resulting infrastructure through long-term contracts, making the cable model more similar to that of a cell tower or data center structure.
TIP, Rural Access
Facebook has supported sub-Saharan African connectivity investment through other collaborations as well. The company was an early partner of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) platform, a community of international companies and organizations (now numbering over 500) that came together in 2016 to look at barriers to global internet connectivity (and its impact on GDP growth) by finding better network building and upgrade solutions, specifically in the areas of access, data transport, and core network architecture.
Additionally, through its Rural Access program, Facebook has two primary partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa. One is with Africa Mobile Networks (AMN) in Cameroon and the DRC to bring solar-powered mobile access sites to isolated rural areas with no pre-existing grid power or mobile backhaul infrastructure. The other is in the DRC, where Facebook has been investing in trials to upgrade existing mobile sites to 3G/4G network standards.
And in Kenya and Rwanda, Facebook has partnered with BRCK, the Nairobi-based connectivity provider, to provide expanded free Wi-Fi services on public transportation.