From Cape Town to Cairo: The day Africa connected itself

By Ben Roberts

When mobile phones took off more quickly and more widely in Africa than elsewhere, the continent leapt ahead of the western world in mobile adoption. This was driven by its sparse and costly landline infrastructure.

As smartphones have followed a similar trajectory in Africa, the Internet has been held back by the same infrastructure constraints that haunted the continent’s landlines. That is until a new Internet superhighway from Cape Town to Cairo was recently announced by Liquid Telecom, representing a turning point in African connectivity.

Until now, Internet fibre has followed the path of Africa’s roads, railways and ports, placing it into an immediate infrastructure bunker – as Africa has so far failed to achieve the north-to-south or east-to-west rail routes or highways that characterise every other continent in the world.

Travelling from Cape Town to Cairo takes 8 days and 16 hours according to Google, with visions of transcontinental rail routes remaining a dream for more than a century. Even air connections have lagged. Not so long-ago Africans travelling across the continent from East to West had to fly via Europe to reach the other side of their own land mass.

Africa’s internet ecosystem enjoyed a step change when undersea cables landed in the region, opening up new connectivity from southern Europe to augment the satellite bandwidth that had until then been Africa’s sole supply.

Yet from port-based entry points the undersea cables created routes, once again, back to Europe and then onwards to other parts of Africa. Only a few direct connections existed from African nation to African nation.

That map has changed significantly over the last five years. Africa now has a large internet superhighway running from Kenya to South Africa, and is continuing to widen and deepen its internet infrastructure. Both public and private organisations, among them Liquid Telecom, continue to invest millions of dollars in laying fibre.

New networks have driven down the continent’s Internet costs radically in the past three years. In mid-2014, South Africa was home to some of the most expensive Internet connectivity in the world, where it cost over $250,000 for a 10Gbps wavelength from Johannesburg to London – compared to less than $25,000 from London to New York, or Los Angeles to Tokyo, according to TeleGeography.

By last year, the same 10Gbps wavelength from Johannesburg to London cost less than $40,000, having fallen in price by more than 80 per cent. However, network speeds have only improved marginally in that time – because many of the subsea routes still transit via the UK.

While cross-border connections have been built within Africa, most remain without access to landing stations and are confined to individual commercial contracts. But a new route is being established between Cape Town and Cairo that for the first time goes beyond the reach that road and rail have ever achieved in Africa.

The launch follows the signing of an MoU in July 2018 between Liquid Telecom and Telecom Egypt that enables Liquid Telecom to complete a terrestrial fibre optic network stretching 60,000-kilometre from the southern-most tip of South Africa to Cairo.

The new infrastructure signals a new era for the continent’s Internet, providing a comprehensive terrestrial network that ensures far less African data is routed undersea to Europe and back – therefore significantly improving Africa’s Internet speeds.

The laws of physics provide a sum of 97 milliseconds to move a data packet from Cape Town to Cairo by the shortest land-based path on Africa’s Internet trunk routes, compared with the 209 milliseconds it has been taking on a much longer path via London and Southern Europe.

With cross-border Internet routes made operational, data that today takes 296 milliseconds via the UK will move in just 38 milliseconds from Mombasa to Kinshasa. Data from Djibouti to Douala will move four times faster, from Cape Town to Casablanca, nearly twice as quickly. And where physical links have defied the spend and reach of governments continent-wide, the Internet industry hand-in-hand with governments and the public sector will have made Africa into a unified data zone, moving its own data on its own infrastructure.

This is why the completion of a Cape to Cairo route is something the whole internet industry should be celebrating. And why Africa just took an infrastructure leap that it has never managed before.

And nor has the need ever been greater – with the region signing a monumental trade agreement in order to promote pan-African trade and business. The continent is finally becoming more connected, bringing with it improved internal communications, trade and business that will change the future.

(Ben Roberts is the Group Chief Technical and Innovation Officer, Liquid Telecom).

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