Facebook’s efforts to control the access of African internet users has sparked an infrastructure arms race between the internet giants
Africa’s internet users are benefiting from the fact that two of the world’s biggest tech companies are using their considerable means to compete over Africa’s internet users.
Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, launched in 2013, is in the pole position, controlling access to the web through its Free Basics platform. This has stung search giant Google to fight back and get more Africans on the open web, or risk losing its role as the internet’s main search tool.
Both powerhouses have grasped the huge potential the continent’s 1.2 billion audience presents for increased advertising revenue and growth in new users. Using old and new technologies, the giants are playing it out undersea, on land and in the skies to secure a piece of the African connectivity pie.
Facebook opened its first African office in South Africa in 2015 and has a substantial footprint on continent. According to 2015 statistics released by the social network, 60% of all internet users in Africa were active Facebook users.
To champion his cause of getting the world online, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg launched the Free Basics app in September 2015 to provide internet access to the two-thirds of the world lacking it.
The Free Basics app gives users free access to a limited number of websites, Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp and Facebook itself without charging data costs.
Facebook and mobile network operators carefully select country-specific sites to cover entertainment, health, news, social media and sports, leaving users with less need for Google.
The Free Basics platform only works through mobile carriers, which is a faster means for Facebook to reach the masses. In November last year, Facebook announced its biggest African collaboration yet – with Airtel Africa – to launch Free Basics in 17 countries.
So far, the app is available in 11 Airtel markets including Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and Nigeria. In Ghana, the partnership has created “tremendous growth in terms of customer intake, with more than 200% growth,” according to Airtel Ghana’s data business director, Jean Claude Domilongo Bope.
Free Basics is now available in 21 African countries out of a total 47 countries worldwide. The charitable nature of the project has been questioned, as mobile operators – and not Facebook – are left to cover the data costs.
The app has also stirred controversy in India, where regulators banned it in February 2016 for violating net neutrality.
Nevertheless, the threat is real, and to challenge Facebook’s popularity across the region Google has focused its energy on improving the continent’s much-needed infrastructure.
Last-mile connectivity – the connection that extends networks into homes and businesses – remains a challenge, and this is where Google is stepping in. Through its Project Link initiative, the search giant is building links between undersea cables and internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile networks.
Launched in 2013, the project aims to build wholesale fibre-optic networks. These are then leased to ISPs and mobile operators, who can in turn provide customers with faster, more reliable and cheaper internet access.
Google chose Kampala as the first African city for the project, building more than 800km of fibre across the city.
Roke Telkom, the first wireless access provider to join the Project Link partnership in Uganda, has rolled out more than 110 Wi-Fi hotspots around central Kampala, providing unlimited Wi-Fi connections within malls, restaurants and public places for the city’s three million residents.
The service prides itself on affordability and charges USh1,000 ($0.29) and USh18,000 for a daily and monthly subscription, respectively.
After piloting the project in Uganda, Google began work in Ghana in June 2015 to build 1,200km of fibre networks in three cities. In the field of fibre network construction, Google faces competition from the likes of Liquid Telecom (see page 80) and Chinese telecom firms.
The battle of the giants is also being played out in the skies using new technologies. In 2014, Facebook took it up another level when it announced plans to use drones, satellites and lasers to connect everyone in the developing world to the internet. The company is pouring money into satellite internet access but has had a few bumps along the way.
In September 2016, a SpaceX rocket carrying the $200m Amos-6 satellite leased to Facebook by French satellite operator Eutelsat exploded ahead of its launch, destroying their joint efforts to deliver satellite broadband internet to remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2013 Google had launched Project Loon, which aims to use high-altitude helium balloons to provide high-speed internet to areas where connectivity is scarce.
In July this year, Facebook completed a successful test flight of a solar-powered drone named Aquila, while Google has carried out test flights of the balloons and claims to have flown over 17m kilometres of test flights to date since the project began.
These ambitious projects have garnered both praise and scepticism, as neither of the two companies has provided much information on how or when they plan on bringing these prototypes into use.
“This race is conducted in a black box because nobody really knows how close to being real any of those technologies are,” argues Russell Southwood, an analyst at telecoms consultancy Balancing Act.
“Until the horse comes off the track, we have no way of knowing whether any of these solutions are realistic, both in terms of cost or in terms of operating in Africa,” he says.
He suggests focusing on much cheaper business models “rather than getting over-excited about something that may come in probably two years and more realistically in three to five years”.
Some successful projects that are already working include Ushahidi’s portable BRCK router, which provides internet access to rural areas in Africa, and Kenya’s Mawingu Networks, which has set up solar-powered hotspots in places without grid power.
From the November 2016 print edition