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Google Africa Chief says Equiano cable will lift inland Internet access

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Wednesday, 20 October 2021 13:08

Nitin Gajria
Google Africa managing director Nitin Gajria. Photo supplied.

Google plans to use its Western Africa undersea Equiano cable as a springboard to increase Internet access across the continent, Nitin Gajria, managing director for Africa, tells The Africa Report.

The US tech giant is working with Internet service providers to extend services inland, says Gajria, who is based in Johannesburg. The challenge, he says, is to define “what infrastructure looks like beyond the sub-sea cable.”

Google this month announced it will invest $1b over the next five years to increase African Internet access and support start-ups. The investment will include the landing of the Equiano cable which will enable faster internet speeds and lower connectivity costs. The cable will run from Portugal through Nigerian, Namibia, South Africa and St. Helena. Some parts of Equiano will come into service in the second half of 2022, Gajria says.

Some have argued that Africa’s coastal areas already have adequate broadband capacity and that Google’s plans will do little to tackle the dearth of access in inland areas. Gbenga Adebayo, chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria, has also said that free services offered by Google and Facebook could threaten the survival of local operators.

Gajria agrees that there is currently “ample capacity” in Africa’s coastal areas, and argues that there is a need to build capacity for future demand. Only about 300m out of the sub-Saharan African (SSA) population of 1.1bn people has Internet access. Gajria estimates that 300m people will come on line in SSA in the next five years, followed by 500m in the following five years.

  • That means “we need to solve challenges along every part of the digital supply chain.”
  • Gajria argues that free tools such as Google Maps and search functions are crucial for small businesses in Africa.
  • Maps are essential for delivery people in areas where there isn’t a full system of street addresses, he says. Search functions help small businesses to get discovered and build customer bases, he adds.
  • There is, Gajria argues, no danger of local telecoms providers being crowded out in the process. “We do all this in partnership with telcos. They are an essential part of the supply chain.”
  • Gajria shrugged off claims that Google pays little or no tax in Africa. “We are 100% compliant with tax laws in Africa,” he says, declining to say how much tax Google pays on the continent.

Project Taara

In relation to African incomes, Gajria says, data costs remain “incredibly expensive.” The Equiano cable will help to reduce data costs, he says, but the issue is a “multifaceted problem that Google can’t fix alone.”

Gajria points to “Project Taara”, a partnership with Econet, as an example of how inland access can be improved. The project uses light to transmit information at very high speeds as an invisible beam.

  • The aim is to provide high-speed connectivity in places where it’s too difficult or expensive to lay fibre cables. The project, Gajria says, has the potential to reduce reliance on telecoms towers and cut costs for operators.
  • Early-stage trials of the technology, the reliability of which can be affected by weather conditions, have taken place in Kenya.
  • In September, Project Taara engineers were able to use the technology to beam data across the Congo River between Brazzaville and Kinshasa.

Bottom Line

Google is confident that Equiano can kick-start Internet access across sub-Saharan Africa.

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