Facebook Is Building Undersea Cable Around Africa: Digital Colonizer Or Internet Access Savior?

Facebook Is Building Undersea Cable Around Africa: Digital Colonizer Or Internet Access Savior?

Facebook is building a 22,991-mile-long undersea cable around the least-connected continent, hoping to turn more of Africa’s 1.3 billion citizens into customers. That’s just 2,000 miles shy of the circumference of the globe.

undersea cable
Facebook is building an undersea cable around Africa. Digital colonizer or internet access savior? A quarter of Africans have connectivity. Credit: Facebook

France-based Alcatel Submarine Networks, owned by Finland’s Nokia, has been contracted by Facebook to build the cable, CNBC reported.

To pull off its massive project, dubbed 2Africa, Facebook has partnered with China Mobile, South Africa’s MTN, France’s Orange and Britain’s Vodafone as well as local network operators. The cable will interconnect 23 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Fewer than 13 percent of Africans use Facebook, and the social media company is hopeful that increasing internet access could translate to more Facebook users.

With just over a quarter of its 1.3 billion people connected to the internet, Africa is a target for other Silicon Valley internet giants besides Facebook, including Google.

Google’s Equiano undersea project is supposed to connect Portugal to South Africa by 2021 and provide 20 times more network capacity than the last cable built to serve the region, according to a Google blog post.

There are about 380 undersea cables carrying more than 99.5 percent of all transoceanic data, running for 750,000 miles across the ocean floor. These fiber optic wires connect massive data centers supporting cloud computing networks for Amazon, Microsoft Azure and Google. 

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In a recent blog post, Facebook described its 2Africa cable as “transformational … one of the largest subsea cable projects in the world.”

Seven years ago, Dan Farber, former editor-in-chief of CNET, wrote about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s “unquenchable imperial urge to engulf everyone on Earth via the Internet.” That was in 2013, when Facebook had 1.1 billion users. Today, Facebook claims to have 2.45 billion monthly active users and, like other Silicon Valley internet giants, Africa is its new frontier.

“Few figures in history have led such an enormous and successful conquest in such a short time and at such a young age,” Farber wrote. “But Zuckerberg is clearly not satisfied with his accomplishments. His next mission — alongside the continuing one of building a service that people love — is to colonize the billions of people on the planet who are not yet on the internet.”

Source: Facebook

Facebook says the 2Africa project is impressive for more than length alone. “It will provide nearly three times the total network capacity of all the subsea cables serving Africa today,” Najam Ahmad and Kevin Salvadori wrote on May 13 for Facebook. “When completed, this new route will deliver much-needed internet capacity, redundancy, and reliability across Africa; supplement a rapidly increasing demand for capacity in the Middle East; and support further growth of 4G, 5G, and broadband access for hundreds of millions of people.”

In 2013, Zuckerberg introduced the world to Internet.org — free basic internet service, that he argued was “a human right,” Wired reported. Universal basic internet service is possible, he wrote, but “it isn’t going to happen by itself.” Wiring the world required powerful players — like Facebook.

Critics were skeptical of Zuckerberg’s intentions from the start, questioning the “American boy-billionaire who believed the world needed his help.” They criticized Facebook’s app for allowing free access only to a Facebook-sanctioned set of services. Human rights groups signed an open letter to Zuckerberg accusing Facebook of “building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services.”

“The motives of Zuckerberg (now 36 years old) and his partners are not purely altruistic,” Farber wrote regarding Internet.org.

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In 2016, India banned Facebook’s app. Soon after that, Facebook stopped talking about Internet.org.

Facebook claims 2Africa will be the first subsea cable system to seamlessly connect East and West Africa across a single open system. But in 2020, it’s about more than advancing connectivity infrastructure across the African continent, Facebook said in a blog post.

Facebook is using the covid-19 pandemic to promote 2Africa as “a major investment that comes at a crucial time for economic recovery.”

“The ongoing covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of connectivity as billions of people around the world rely on the internet to work, attend school, and stay connected to those they care about.”