Facebook's connectivity initiatives in Africa to deliver $57B

How Facebook aims to deliver $57b in economic benefits in Africa by 2024 through connectivity investments.

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Over 800 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are yet to be connected to the internet meaning that only about 20 percent of the population have access to or use the internet. This is despite the internet being an important driver of economic and social development in the world. Access to the internet enables people all over the world to better communicate, engage in trade, work, learn, and participate in everyday activities. The internet also allows people to access information, services and content from anywhere in the world. Just a few decades ago, there was no way that businesses, individuals, friends and strangers alike would have been connected in such a way as is happening now.

These connections are possible through a web of networks that make it possible for information to flow from distant sources to a local village and back. However, these connections have not been easily accessible to the average African in the continent. Fortunately, this is rapidly changing as more and more players start contributing to connecting African countries to each other and the rest of the world.

Notable is the projected $57 billion of economic benefits that the continent is slated to enjoy in the next five years through investments in connectivity by American social media giant Facebook. According to a report by Analysys Mason, Facebook is helping to connect millions of Africans by investing in infrastructure that supports internet connectivity, and backing mobile service providers through facilitation initiatives. 

Barriers preventing access to internet

Compared to other regions in the world, Sub-Saharan Africa has relatively limited infrastructure needed to offer reliable connectivity. Internet access is further inhibited by the high prices that internet service providers attach to their products. Many people in Sub-Saharan Africa suffer from a lack of physical network coverage. In Africa, there is no widely developed and fixed broadband network. This means that mobile networks are the main means that people connect to the internet. Yet, only 9 percent of people have proper access, with 20 percent suffering from weak, expensive, limited 2G services.

Facebook's connectivity initiatives aim to solve most of these problems. The social media platform is providing technical and financial inputs that make these connectivity infrastructures cheaper and easier to deploy. This is in line with its mission “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”.

Kojo Boakye, Africa Public Policy Director at Facebook, says the company is especially committed to Africa: “Over the last three years we’ve heavily invested in infrastructure and connectivity initiatives that aim to affordably connect people on this continent and create tangible social-economic benefits. These efforts are part of a complex solution that requires all stakeholders – including mobile operators, infrastructure providers and governments – to work together for the common good. We are only 1% finished and remain committed to this exciting journey and working with all our partners along the way.”

Submarine cables

Submarine cable investments by Facebook reduce the need for the operators to make investments in international connectivity. To ensure that Africa is connected, Facebook invests in cable capacity to make content more accessible on its African Point of Presence (PoP) in Johannesburg (South Africa), Mombasa (Kenya) and Lagos (Nigeria).

Although there are 18 planned and existing undersea cables connecting to Africa, they have limited capacity and therefore new ones must be deployed. Furthermore, more than 80 percent of undersea cables that serves Africa connects to Europe. Traffic on this route is set to grow and therefore cause more connection headaches for Africa, including limited cable capacity and bandwidth. The situation is even worse in landlocked countries. For example, in South Africa, the cost of connection is currently over ten times that of London, while in landlocked Uganda, it is over three times that of South Africa. To improve access to cable connection, Facebook has partial ownership of nine undersea cables around the globe.

Edge network

The continent also suffers from lack of relevant content. The content that is mostly accessible on the internet is curated in either English or other non-African languages. The people in Africa speak multiple languages despite being in close proximity. This means that a large section of the population would need local content and local culture as they enter the realm of the web. 

Facebook also invests in edge network infrastructure to ensure that Africa has improved access to content. Instead of processing, storing and transferring content from a centralised data centre, this technology ensures that data is stored, processed and distributed from multiple locations around the globe.

To facilitate this, Facebook has three PoPs, caches and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). The social giant is already a member of IXPs in nine Sub-Saharan countries - Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Gambia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. All these technologies and infrastructures ensure users in Sub-Saharan Africa access content from within the continent instead of further afield. The end result is that Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) enjoy reduced transit costs.

In addition to these, Facebook has invested in backhaul fiber through Open Transport Network (OTNx) thereby accelerating the expansion of mobile broadband networks to more people in the continent. Already, the company has established partnership in fiber-optic cable and equipment technologies in Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa improving access to 3G/4G mobile broadband to millions of people in the process.

Supporting investments by operators

Facebook has a range of initiatives that encourage and support investments by MNOs and ISPs in Africa. For example, the Express Wi-Fi is a software platform offered by Facebook for free to its partners (MNOs and ISPs). This enables them to deploy, operate and monetise Wi-Fi services that make it possible for them to address coverage, usage and capacity gaps. Currently, seven countries in Africa are enjoying Express Wi-Fi services – Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa. In addition, Facebook offers funding for partners to deploy their own Wi-Fi networks.

In the company’s Rural Access initiative, Facebook has made investments in Africa Mobile Networks (AMN) in Cameroon and DRC, and BRCK in Kenya and Rwanda. The company has also implemented Telecom Infra Project (TIP), where it seeks to encourage and mobilise telecoms, governments, vendors, and other stakeholders to come up with new and affordable technologies and hardware.

$57 economic impact for Africa

“Increased connectivity outcomes enabled by Facebook’s initiatives, in the form of new users and additional traffic, create significant economic value,” according to the report by Analysys Mason.

Facebook has deployed multiple connectivity initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa, all of which serve the same goal of making the internet more affordable, accessible and available to all people. Reducing connectivity barriers has wide reaching economic benefits to countries in the continent. When quantified, the continent will enjoy economic benefits in excess of USD57 billion in additional GDP over a five-year period between 2020 and 2024.

When Facebook invests in connectivity infrastructure and facilitates internet providers and operators, users enjoy improved coverage, fast and high quality of connectivity at lower costs. This means increased internet take-up, increased data traffic, more access to online resources and outright communication and interactions online. All these translate to economic and social benefits for the continent.

As the report notes, “Facebook’s initiatives create economic value both as a direct result of investment, and through multiplier effects”.