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How Google, Facebook, Amazon, SpaceX and others are competing to deliver reliable high-speed Internet to Africa

Africa internet infrastructure
Innovative projects to deliver reliable high-speed Internet to Africa ( SOURCE, Image: CC-BY-4.0 Attribution: https://insights.rlist.io )
From the outer space, across the skies, under the seas - these are the diverse strategies that global tech giants, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and SpaceX, have unyieldingly devised to deliver reliable high-speed Internet to Africa.

In fact, some of these initiatives are coming close to being commercially ready. In June 2020, SpaceX's Starlink begun to offer beta trials to users in United States and Canada first. A month later, in July 2020, Google's Loon received official approval to provide balloon-operated 4G Internet services in Kenya.

BUT WHY ?

According to a 2019 report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), only 28% of Africa's 1.3 billion people have access to the Internet and only 10 out of 45 countries in Africa provide affordable Internet access. In other words, geographically, Africa is now the last frontier for the next 1 billion Internet users.
Ranked list of countries with high cost of Internet access
List of countries by least affordable Internet access (A4AI) - in Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 GB of data is priced US$10.71 which is a highly unaffordable 26% of the average monthly income of US$43 - highest in the world. ( FULL DATASET)
This, plus the growing middle class and young median age of the African consumer population, is the virtual equivalent of an untapped gold mine and a gold rush for these Internet giants - the next billion users for advertising, e-commerce, social media and any modern-day digital business. This nascent but potentially explosive market drives global companies worldwide into investing years and billions to design and deploy the necessary Internet infrastructure in the vast lands of Africa to grab a first-mover foothold.

SCALE OF THE PROBLEM

Internet bandwidth usage in Africa is some of the lowest in the world, with international bandwidth usage per Internet user of only 31 kilobits per second in 2019, compared to Europe's 211 kilobits per second. According to a report by the World Bank Group, providing universal, affordable and good quality internet access to Africa by 2030 will require an investment of US$100 billion.
Nearly 80% of the required investments are directly related to costs in rolling out and maintaining broadband networks. The challenge is immense, considering Africa's vast geography, with close to 100 million people in rural and remote areas beyond the reach of traditional cellular mobile networks.

HOW ?

To overcome the expensive economics of deploying cellubar mobile base stations or laying terrestial cables to cover Africa, companies have reached to the skies and even the space for answers. Satellite constellations are being propelled in orbital space, while balloons and drones form wireless network meshes in the stratosphere.
To ensure larger network capacities in anticipation of an explosion in inter-Africa Internet traffic, companies have looked to the seas, laying ten of thousands of kilometres of undersea cable to link coastal nodes of Africa to the rest of the world

STRATOSPHERIC BALLOONS

How Project Loon works.
Project Loon is one of the best known balloon-powered Internet infrastructure initiative - born as a moonshot project out of Google in 2013. In recent years, Project Loon has been deployed to provide emergency connectivity during natural disasters, such as in Peru during the spring floods in March 2017 and in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria in October 2017.
In July 2020, Google's Project Loon and Telkom Kenya announced the first commercial deployment in Africa. The deployment uses a fleet of 35 or more polyethylene balloons floating at 20 kilometers above ground in the stratosphere to provide 4G LTE services to users in central and western Kenya, spanning a surface area of 50,000km2.
9 July 2020: Project Loon - Google partnering with Telcom Kenya to deliver connectivity to Rural Kenya.

SUBSEA CABLING

2Africa is a large-scale subsea cabling project striving to connect up 23 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. It is spearheaded by an international consortium of partners such as Facebook, China Mobile International,MTN GlobalConnect, Orange, stc, Telecom Egypt, Vodafone and WIOCC.
The project lays 37,000km long of subsea cable and is projected to deliver a capacity of up to 180Tbps, exceeding the total combined capacity of all existing subsea cables serving Africa today. The system is expected to go live in 2023/24.
Aside from the 2Africa project which has its origin as Project Simba at Facebook, Facebook has also invested heavily in terrestrial shared backhaul projects, laying 1,770km of optical fibre in northwest Uganda, South Africa (Diepsloot and Katlehong) and Nigeria (Abeokuta of Ogun, Benin City of Edo and Ogun).
Equiano is a subsea cabling project that connects Portugal to South Africa, along the west coast of Africa with several branch points, the first of which branches to Lagos Nigeria. Named after Nigerian-born writer Olaudah Equiano, this project is the third fully funded subsea cable project by Google, after Curie and Dunant. Spanning a distance of around 10,000km, Equiano is expected to have a design capacity of at least 100 terabits per second.
The first phase of the project, connecting South Africa with Portugal, is expected to be completed by Q4 2021. Spanning a distance of around 10,000km, Equiano is expected to have a design capacity of at least 100 terabits per second.

SATELLITE INTERNET

Beyond the stratosphere, the battle for satellite-powered Internet supremacy has reached the edges of Earth's orbital space. Deep-pocketed companies, such as SpaceX, Amazon and Facebook, are literally launching plans, such as SpaceX Starlink, Amazon Kuiper and Facebook Athena, to blanket the orbital space with tens of thousands of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to form constellations that help maintain reliable, fast and stable Internet connectivity.
By June 2020, SpaceX has launched 540 Starlink LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites and has begun to offer beta trials to users in United States and Canada first.
CNBC: Why SpaceX and Amazon are launching 42,000+ satellites
OneWeb. UK startup OneWeb had plans for an initial 650 LEO satellite constellation to be completed by 2020. However, the company declared bankruptcy in late March 2020 after launching 74 satellites. Fortunately, a consortium led by the UK government and Bharti Global owned by Indian billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal won the bid to purchase the bankrupt company for a combined investment of US$1 billion, giving it a second run at the game.
OneWeb's 650-satellite network, when fully deployed, will provide low-latency bandwidth comparable to high-speed fiber or 5G wireless networks and fulfil its vision to bring the "Internet to everyone, everywhere", with unserved rural communities of sub-Saharan African countries being priority markets.
How OneWeb's Connectivity Works
Quika. Launched in Africa in 2018, Quika has begun to offer both free and paid satellite Internet services to rural and remote communities under the vision to "connect the unconnected". Its initial satellite network consist primarily of GEO (geo-stationary orbit) satellites and has a latency of 638ms, which is suitable for regular online uses such as web browsing and e-learning, but not real-time applications such as online games or screen-sharing. Quika is planning to work with LEO satellite network providers, such as OneWeb, to reduce the latency to under 100ms.
Quika - The World's First Free Satellite Internet

DRONES/UNMANNED AIRCRAFT SYSTEMS (UAS)

Telelift is the solution of Minnesota-based startup Spooky Action for drone-operated Internet connectivity in remote areas with poor Internet coverage. The Telelift system uses table-sized drones which hover in the air, while tethered to a ground site. The tethered drones are capable of staying in the air for at least a month while drawing power from solar panels or a ground-based power source.
Loon-HAPSMobile. Alphabet's Loon LLC and SoftBank's HAPSMobile Inc are collaborating on the use of HAPSMobile's HAWK30 solar-powered electric UAS as an expansion to Loon's balloon-powered Internet connectivity platform. According to Loon and HAPSMobile, the antenna technology onboard the HAWK30 UAS can reportedly establish point-to-point (P2P) connections at distances of up to 700 meters and carry data at speeds up to 1Gbps.
HAPS Concept Video

CONCLUSION

Africa internet infrastructure
Image: CC-BY-4.0, Attribution: https://insights.rlist.io
From the outer space, across the skies, under the seas - the growing maturity of these innovative Internet infrastructure solutions is timely in 2020.
The available of affordable and accessible Internet can greatly aid government efforts to combat and contain the spread of Covid-19, particularly among remote and underserved communities. Remote health clinics can be potentially connected to national healthcare institutions for co-ordinated treatment and containment. In the long term, the investments of these early movers would pay strong dividends, as they would be the first to onboard and in all likely influence the preferences and habits of the next billion Internet users from Africa.