With More Undersea Cables, Africa is Now Hard-Wired into the Internet Backbone

Many Americans may take broadband for granted, but there is still a large digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world. From the early 21st century, computers have made their way to many developing nations, and thrived— a prime example is India as an IT outsourcing hub. India’s growth would not have been possible without a stable, fast internet connection to the rest of the world. This stable connection is what is being built for Africa only now. North Africa has many internet users, as seen by the recent protests, and this is no coincidence. Its geographic proximity to Europe gave North Africa quick access to Europe and North America. Previously, South Africa had only been served by SAT3-SAFE, a submarine communications cable linking Portugal to South Africa (SAT3) and South Africa to India and Singapore. However, SAT3-SAFE is quite slow by modern standards. India and Singapore had already built undersea cables connecting to the Middle East (which by terrestrial connection reaches Europe) However, Africa’s connections to Europe and the internet backbone were limited. Most of the internet in Southern Africa was routed through the SAT3-SAFE. South Africa has almost 5 million internet users, most of them on capped broadband plans, since there is not enough bandwidth. This also makes internet throughout sub-Saharan Africa very expensive. SAT3 is also not very reliable. For three days in July of 2009, there was an internet outage in Nigeria and Cameroon, two of the connection points of SAT3. All countries that used SAT3-SAFE from Cameroon and south had to rely on satellite communication to access the internet, or use another under-sea cable. For many countries, SAT3 was the only communications cable. The lack of bandwidth hurts not only residential customers, but also corporations. High-bandwidth applications such as videoconferences are difficult without ample bandwidth.
With selective nations in Africa posting large economic growth rates, undersea cables connecting sub-Saharan Africa to Europe and the Middle East are being built. ACE, a $700 million private investment project from France to South Africa will connect new countries that have never had access to an international communications line. In addition, this line has lots of bandwidth, and is able to be upgraded without modifying the existing cable. This will ease bandwidth caps in South Africa through competition.Kenya is also being connected to the United Arab Emirates via TEAMS, another undersea cable.

Undersea Cable Map

Simply, Africa is being connected to the rest of the world. Besides from video conferencing, the internet is a worldwide knowledge hub, providing educational facilities with books and encyclopedias that are unavailable locally. The investment climate and tourism will also receive a boost from cheaper more readily available internet access. Hotels and local travel agencies can create websites for Western tourists, and securities can be traded with more ease, if governments allow. This is all good news for Google, who has been depending on wider availability of internet to promote its services in Africa.
Falling internet prices will not be caused by more bandwidth, but increased competition by ISPs entering through ACE and other undersea cables. Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, The Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Sao Tome and Principe and Sierra Leone have never had access to an international communications line, and no doubt new ISPs will enter the market to provide these services. South Africa’s internet-connected population is expected to double to 9 million over the next 5 years, and added broadband bandwidth will give plenty of room to expand.

Are the Days of Unlimited Internet Numbered?

With AT&T’s announcement of capping DSL broadband to 250GB, one must wonder, is the age of unlimited internet ending? After all, the government of Finland has declared that that broadband of 1 Mbps is a human right. If water and electricity are considered human rights, you’ll realize that both are metered. Without paying a high flat-rate, you pay for what you use. Why should the internet be any different? There was a time when electricity was unlimited, but as devices required more current and infrastructure costs increased, metered pricing was necessary.

AT&T recently introduced data caps for its DSL users

Caps, like what AT&T have instituted, are different than metered plans, the latter you pay for how much you use, and the former creates a limit where the charge will be higher.

A world of capped internet is not in the immediate future, but it may change the internet dramatically. In the dial-up age, internet connectivity was slow, so websites were optimized for the 56k connection, and simply loaded text and content.  When broadband became mainstream, websites responded becoming more interactive and multimedia oriented. Websites like Hulu and YouTube would not have attracted viewers, buffering wait times would have been too long. Even file-sharing only grew when peers had always-on unlimited broadband.

If internet usage was capped, how would users and websites respond? Gnutella clients and other peer-to-peer file sharing networks would take the largest hit, as they stream the most amount of content during the nighttime and all year long, whenever ­their computers are idle.

At first, not much would change for most internet users. Caps would likely be around the 250GB to 500GB mark, far more than what most web-surfers require. However, as bandwidth and hard drive technology has advances, the size of files moving through the internet has grown. Operating system patches and upgrades can be as big as 2 GB.  Verizon FiOS now offers 150Mbps download speeds, and Google’s fiber optic network boasting a theoretical 1 Gbps could be headed your way. At that speed, it would only take 250 seconds to fill AT&T’s data cap.  No file is that large today, but downloading large files from the cloud would require a second thought.  1080p HD Videos? 4K-ultra-high-resolution videos?  Bandwidth increases will soon be able to seamlessly support massive videos- one full-length 4K movie could require more than 100 GB.

Such actions taken by ISPs to cap internet usage would also have a large impact on Internet TV, increasing the price of Internet TV compared to cable. Running your TV for a few hours could be 8 GB. A month worth of watching TV for 3 hours every day would near 250 GB.

Such change isn’t likely, but it will be interesting to see how the internet’s content and information will evolve to meet and fit the guidelines of the capped (or even metered) broadband world.