What Facebook and Google are doing to improve connectivity in Africa

Ever since Facebook’s announcement of Free Basics in 2015, the social networking site and Google have initiated a number of activities aimed at bringing internet connectivity to the developing world. As these countries are still growing their internet users, this makes it a great expansion plan for these companies. However, to maximise the opportunity Facebook and Google may need to move faster to provide connectivity.

After years of talk, Facebook might have finally made its mark by announcing the building of a backhaul fibre optic network in Uganda and partnering with Surf, an internet provider, to offer Wi-Fi hotspots in Kenya. Google, on the other hand, is in the process of building a high speed fibre network in Uganda and Ghana named Project Link.

Danson Njue, a research analyst with Ovum, agrees that developing regions are a fertile growth opportunity for these big companies. “In my opinion, the motivation is the relatively lower broadband penetration in Africa and the opportunities that comes with improved broadband connectivity,” he tells IDG Connect.


Building capacity for local ISPs

The two companies do not envisage being the ones to manage last mile connectivity for users though. Instead they have offered these capacities to local internet service providers (ISPs) who will sell the services to the locals.

Google’s Project Link states that it enabled ISPs and MNOs to provide high-quality broadband at lower costs through shared infrastructure such as metro fibre and Wi-Fi networks.

“Google launched Project Link to bring faster, more reliable internet to the people and places that need it. We first built a metro fiber network in the city of Kampala, Uganda, a dense urban centre that was limited to pre-broadband speeds. Our shared infrastructure model means we work alongside our customers, building networks they can leverage to provide better services to end users,” it explained on its website.

Google’s Project Link has already connected Kampala city with its fibre to provide fast connectivity.

Facebook has launched its project with Airtel and Bandwidth and Cloud Services Group (BCS) to build shared fibre backhaul connectivity in Uganda.

“We’re excited to announce our participation in an approximately 770km fibre build in northwest Uganda that, when completed, will provide backhaul connectivity covering more than three million people in Uganda and enable future cross-border connectivity to neighbouring countries,” the company said in late February this year.

Building a shared service helps local and international players to create products that are well priced for these communities.

Facebook added that, “Upon completion, the new capacity created will be used to provide backhaul to mobile operators' base stations and other points of presence, reducing their costs and increasing capacity. This will help improve performance and support upgrades to 3G and 4G in areas where operators are bandwidth-constrained.”

In Kenya, Facebook partnered with Surf, to offer Wi-Fi hotspots around Kenya. But these will be offered in partnership with local businesses who will resell the service to their patrons and customers.

“Surf is working with local entrepreneurs to host and sell the Express Wi-Fi service. The entrepreneurs offer the service around their locations and customers can purchase a range of packages. Surf is offering an introductory promotion, where every new customer gets 100MBs every day for 10 days, guaranteeing that the customers can experience the service as soon as they sign up,” Surf said in a statement.

Users of the Express Wi-Fi hotspots can access sites for free that are part of Facebook’s Free Basics project. These will include news sites, employment portals along with health and education information sites.


Looking at underserved regions

Even within developing markets there are many areas that are not well supplied with cheap and fast connectivity. This is dictated by population density where the opportunity for organisations to make a good return on investment rules the game.

Facebook’s Express Wi-Fi looks to tap into other areas and move away from the urban centres that are probably over served with internet services.

Danson Njue says that this should be the next focus for new and expanding ISPs. “I think the best is really a combination of a number of technologies as the connectivity needs vary with each area/location based on terrain and demographics. Some remote areas are hard to reach using any terrestrial networks and hence would work well with satellite.”

The most ambitious project yet is Telkom Kenya’s plan to roll out a free Wi-Fi centre in all 290 constituencies in order to push connectivity to the peripheries. This will be done in collaboration with the Ministry of ICT.

The aim of the project is to create innovation hubs to spur entrepreneurship. The hubs will also enable government e-services to be accessed by all.

Njue believes such partnerships with the private sector should be pursued by governments. He stresses that it is time establishments across the continent take advantage of the positive moves made by these big companies.

“Local governments play an important role as the largest consumers of some of these technological advancements. As such, they should take advantage of the increased internet capacity to improve efficiencies in governance by embracing e-governance. There is a whole lot of service that governments could provide to the citizens through the internet including in health, education, agriculture and so on,” Njue concludes.


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Vincent Matinde

Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene.

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