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How Facebook spun its web across African internet

By Quentin Velluet
Posted on Friday, 24 July 2020 12:05

Facebook Zuckerberg Censorship
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City on 31 January 2020. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Over the past five years, Mark Zuckerberg's social network has built and invested in a myriad of assets dedicated to continental connectivity.

In markets where internet penetration is low, Zuckerberg has only one idea in mind for Facebook: ensure the content it broadcasts can be accessed quickly, without interruption or delay.

Over the years, what was once just an online social network has become a “big owner” of internet infrastructure. This is at least the case in Africa, where 24% of the population still does not have a mobile internet subscription and where the Menlo Park giant has invested several hundred million dollars in connectivity projects over five years.

In a study conducted on behalf of the social network and published on Wednesday 22 July, the London-based consulting firm specialising in telecoms and technology, Analysys Mason, lists Facebook’s assets on the continent.

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The latest – and most high-profile – is the 2Africa submarine cable. Funded by Facebook with consortium of international telecom operators, it is expected to surround the continent within three to four years and connect 16 African countries to the rest of the world.

On land, Facebook, which has been mapping network needs since 2016, is involved in highly localised projects in partnership with local operators. With an estimate that 45% of the sub-Saharan population lives more than 25 kilometres from a fiber optic node, the company has been installing  since 2017, 100 kilometres of cable laid with the operator Vast Network in Diepsloot and Katlehong, two municipalities located on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

A year later in Uganda, 770 kilometres of fibre were laid with the help of the Kenyan provider Bandwidth & Cloud Services Group (BCS) and the operator Airtel.

More recently, in February 2019 in Nigeria, Gafam joined forces with the network operator MainOne to lay approximately 750 kilometres of fibre in rural areas within Edo and Ogun States, as well as in parts of the regional capitals.

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“We tested the idea of installing shared infrastructure to see what impact it could have on these markets. Although it is still early to draw all the conclusions, I would say that the first results of this pilot project are interesting but not significant,” concedes Funke Opeke, MainOne’s Managing Director contacted by Jeune Afrique.

Servers in almost every country

The social network is also involved in peripheral infrastructures installed on the continent. Such as the internet exchange points installed in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon, Gambia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. These allow the networks of several Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to be connected to each other, thereby reducing costs and improving the quality and speed of exchanges.

Facebook also has three points of presence in Johannesburg, Mombasa and Lagos. In other words, it rents server racks in data centres to host data locally and quickly serve ISPs. Elsewhere (44 countries in total), the company has a few servers to host high-demand content for rapid distribution.

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While the total amount of these assets remains unknown, Analysys Mason nevertheless estimated that they should make a positive contribution to the continent’s GDP. More than $57 billion in additional wealth is expected to be created over five years. No doubt Facebook will benefit.

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