Team’s note

Dear reader,
The article you’re about to read is the product of a challenge the teams Development Economics and Technology made to each other: to create a relevant article about submarine telecommunication cables. Curious about how can these cables possibly relate to Development Economics? Keep reading!

Every day, we hear about new technologic innovations and digital products and services made to boost our economy and make our lives much easier. This quick access to any sort of information at just a tap of a finger has been considered the new normal. But how is it evolving in developing countries on the African Continent?

Contrary to what you would think, Africa has been evolving quite rapidly in terms of telecommunication infrastructures. Did you know that, in 2019, the number of cell phones per 100 habitants in Botswana was 174? This comes from the fact that cell phones are way cheaper and easier to use than personal computers, for example, making the implementation of the internet in Africa mostly instigated by this.  

One of the key players in enabling Africa to connect countries both inside and outside the continent are the submarine telecommunication cables. With its establishment in some key regions alongside the coast of Africa, such as South Africa and Nigeria, this continent was exposed to a new era of globalization. The purpose of the cables is to transmit telecommunication signals across seas and oceans in order to connect continents and provide easier access to data/internet. As a result, it launched a digital economic expansion and overcame many communication boundaries.

Unfortunately, the truth is that more than 60% of the African population does not have yet access to the Internet and its perks, and there are still many difficulties regarding the adaptation to this new reality that needs to be solved.

Considering these facts, how can this connectivity benefit Africa? And what are the main challenges of it?

Travellers consult their mobile phones in Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Until 2009, only three submarine cables provided the whole African continent with internet. Besides, only one of them was located in the South, meaning that the population in Sub-Saharan Africa was limited to a single outdated cable in order to access the internet. Due to this lack of infrastructure, it was hard to broadcast data within the african continent and between continents. Fortunately, over the past decade, many more cables were installed across thirty-seven countries. Just this improvement led to a great change in Africa’s connectivity. In the regions that are online, we are already able to see the economic impact that these new infrastructures can trigger. For instance, a study from a partnership between RTI (an american nonprofit research institute) and Facebook states that in Kenya there was an increase in employment and job quality in fibre-connected areas, characterized by the creation of new jobs and the replacement of low-skilled jobs for more skilled ones (more specifically, an 8.4% increase in skilled employment). Other outcomes include the increase in foreign investment, governance quality and in the national GDP for many countries.

And yet, almost half of the countries with the capability of having a direct submarine cable connection are only connected to one or two, despite being able to withhold more. Such dependence on a few number of sources made these regions vulnerable to consistent internet outages and slow-downs. For example, it is common for these cables to become disabled by several incidents in particular cuts caused by maritime activities and natural disasters. In June of 2017, an anchor of a container ship damaged the only submarine cable that was connected to Somalia. The Internet outage transpired for more than 3 weeks, causing chaos across the country and economic losses around $10 million per day. Alternatively, digital outages may also come from cable breaks provoked by natural landslides i.e. seaquakes. These incidents tend to be more of a risk to East and Central African regions and are usually more costly to repair as it takes a longer time to reverse the damage.

Submarine cable

Furthermore, African countries also face another big challenge regarding connectivity isolation. The introduction of submarine cables in Africa only reached a small portion of its population, mainly people who lived in urban coastal regions and belonged to an educated and upper class. In contrast, most Sub-Saharan African countries are characterised by vast landlocked territories scarce in infrastructures and a predominant rural population. Although there is a need for terrestrial infrastructure, it seems to be less effective because not only is it more expensive, but also quite complex given the need to cross several borders. In addition, non coastal areas who are digitally isolated are more prone to suffer network outages and take more time to recover, incurring high economic costs. As a result, the deployment of these submarine cables contributed to a digital divide.

Evidently, the problem surrounding rural connectivity will not be solved through traditional solutions, and so some companies like Google and Facebook offered innovative ideas to tackle this issue. In Kenya, Google, through a sister company called Loon, partnered up with Telekom Kenya (Public-private telecommunications entity) and came up with a project that consisted in distributing helium filled balloons above 20km from sea level around the country’s most inaccessible regions. These balloons are powered by a solar panel and have an antenna which provides internet signals within a 5000sq km reach. Moreover, Facebook tried another approach through the usage of drones and satellites and is still to this day studying alongside Airbus various ways of high-altitude internet supply.

Other great examples of landlocked areas’ effort to overcome these boundaries are Botswana and Rwanda. Botswana’s government, alongside with 11 private companies, created a program named “Fibre to Home” with the purpose of offering boundless bandwidth for internet connection in homes. Besides, Rwanda has been partnering up with KT Rwanda Networks and GSMA in order to develop new infrastructure to increase mobile deployment in the country. As a result, between 2014 and 2016, the individual access to the internet increased from 10.6% to 20%.

As we can see, Africa has been on the eye of many private companies willing to invest and solve the problems that this continent is now facing regarding the development of telecommunications. The most ambitious project coming up is 2Africa. Facebook is working with african and global telecommunication operators to create a 37,000km long subsea cable that will connect 23 countries, spanning from Africa to Europe and the Middle East. The joint network capacity that it will offer is three times more than the one that currently exists in Africa. Despite it being expected to improve the continent’s economy and provide a more stable connectivity, it’s difficult to make more accurate predictions since the impact of Covid-19 on the African economy is yet to be analyzed, and it could greatly affect the outcomes of this new project.

Nonetheless, we must not forget that effective and precise regulation needs to be formulated to ensure an open and competitive environment. Without this, cartel agreements and monopolies may appear and thus benefit from an excessive market power and the ability to overprice services and goods. This may deeply affect the growth of the telecom sector. Additionally, we also need to consider the high digital illiteracy across the continent. As a way to combat this problem, ITU and Norway have combined forces to provide training for 14,000 Ghanaians in order to better and strengthen their digital skills, allowing them to undertake jobs in the future that work with this technology and make the most of the internet.

Students of Kibiribiri Church of Uganda Primary school during a Computer Training Meetup at their school

The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly affected our economies, and Africa is no exception. Still, it did not slow down foreign investment nor did it diminish international interests in this continent. In fact, it is anticipated that Africa will grow more than ever after this crisis comes to an end. Investments in fintech, a digitalized way of providing financial services, is among the most important matters that countries and companies are willing to develop.

All in all, Africa still has a long way to go. It will be through the combined efforts of both public and private investment that Africa will overcome the many prevalent challenges and reach its full potential. This way, we believe that the development of telecommunications in this continent will grow exponentially in the upcoming years. The future is bright.

Team’s note

Dear reader,
Having reached the end of the article, we hope you found it insightful and interesting to read. We kindly remind you that this article is the product of a partnership where both the Development Economics and Technology teams challenged each other to write a relevant article on the same topic – submarine telecommunication cables. Don’t forget to check out their article as well. Until then, stay tuned, stay aware.

Benedita Elias

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