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Internet Connection in Africa – Google Invests in an Undersea Internet Cable and an Investment Fund for Startups; Equinix Buys MainOne, and Balloons are Back

Google recently announced $1bn of investments in Africa’s digital transformation. Over the next 5 years, Google’s investments will focus on improving connectivity, backing African tech startups and entrepreneurs, and renewing Google’s non-profit commitments on the continent. One of the initiatives is the Google sub-sea cable project stretching to SA, Namibia, and Nigeria that the company says will improve internet access and affordability by next year. The tech giant will also invest $50m in its Africa Investment Fund aimed at growth-stage startups. Africa needs around $86bn in infrastructure investment to support universal internet access.

The Google inter-continental cable has been in the works since 2019 and will connect Africa to Europe to increase Google’s global internet infrastructure. Google claims that when completed the cable will reduce internet prices by 21%. This is one of 2 subsea internet cable projects by Big Tech companies in Africa, the other being Facebook’s 2Africa which was expanded this month to cover 26 countries. But Google is getting into a space that Facebook has not entered yet: directly funding African startups with venture capital.  The fund will seek out startups “solving real challenges in Africa,”. That is a subjective definition that will become clear as Google starts getting mentioned in African startup funding announcements.

Elsewhere, Equinix, a California-based provider of internet and data centre services, announced that it will buy MainOne, the first private company to land a submarine cable company in West Africa, in a $320 million deal. Based in Nigeria, MainOne started laying its 7,000 km fibre optic cable network that stretches from Portugal to Nigeria in 2008, launching it 2 years later. In the decade since, the company has grown from a startup providing internet to Nigerian businesses, homes, internet service providers, and large telecom operators like MTN and Airtel, to a pan-African company covering 10 countries. Key MainOne assets that will now belong to Equinix as a result of the deal include 3 operational data centres and one under construction expected to open in the first quarter of 2022.

UK company World Mobile is launching a hybrid network using aerostats (blimp-like tethered balloons) that it says will provide near-blanket coverage across Zanzibar and Pemba islands. Two solar-powered, helium-filled balloons will float 300 meters above land and have a broadcast range of around 70 kilometers apiece, using 3G and 4G frequencies to deliver their signal. The balloons can survive winds of up to 150 kilometers per hour and stay airborne for up to 14 days before descending for refilling. In the few hours of downtime, other aerostats will be airborne, ensuring users are never without service. World Mobile will be aiming to succeed where larger companies have failed. Facebook’s Project Aquila, an internet delivery system using high altitude drones, was closed in 2018. Google’s Loon, which used stratospheric balloons to deliver internet connectivity, folded in January 2021.

Just in case you are interested, the latest results for the fastest and best performing fixed internet providers for Q4 2021 in South Africa have been revealed in Ookla’s new Internet Performance Report. The ten best were, in order:  Cool Ideas: 54.46; Afrihost: 44.27; Webafrica: 43.21; Axxess: 41.94; Vox Telecom: 38.40; Rain: 34.20; Mweb: 30.95; Telkom: 23.74; HeroTel: 20.18.

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