By TBY | Nigeria | Mar 29, 2017
In Africa, the race to establish internet infrastructure shows the untapped potential recognized by Facebook and Google, as both scramble to win new users.
A man speaks on his mobile phone outside an internet shop in Epworth, Zimbabwe
Nearly 3.6 billion people—40% of the world’s population—are connected to the internet. This figure is staggering considering that just over two decades ago global connectivity barely exceeded 1% of the population. While this growth signifies major strides in technology and the inevitability of globalization, it also reveals the fact that the majority of the world, particularly vast regions in Africa and Asia, remain without internet access. Facebook and Google are now clamoring for control of this uncharted territory. Ostensibly their intentions are pure: to provide free internet access to neglected territories. The reality is less benevolent, however, as both giants fight for the domination of global connectivity.
Africa has a population of some 1.2 billion people, 25% of which are internet users. This pales in comparison to a figure of 65% in the Western hemisphere and 79% in Europe. There are just 1.8 million internet hosts on the continent in contrast to Europe’s 120 million, Asia’s 67 million, and South America’s 27 million. Internet users in Africa make up 9.3% of the total users globally, despite the continent’s population representing 16.2% of the world’s population.
At the moment, only 17.4% of Africans have access to mobile broadband, and Africa is the only region where the penetration of this technology is below 20%. Fixed broadband connections are even lower, with less than one person per 100 inhabitants subscribed.
Smartphones will play an important role in increasing internet penetration. By the end of 2015, there were 226 million smartphone connections in Africa. By 2020, the GSM Association, a trade body representing mobile operators around the world, predicts there will be 720 million smartphone connections in the continent and that the mobile industry will account for 8% of GDP.
Despite the technical obstacles it has faced, the African telecommunications market is growing faster than it is anywhere else in the world, and Facebook and Google have been not only taking note but also getting involved in what has been termed the “fourth industrial revolution.”
Facebook’s Free Basics
In 2013, Facebook launched Internet.org, an app and mobile website which embraces the notion that internet access is a human right. With Internet.org, internet services are delivered to remote areas by an unmanned, solar-powered drone named “Aquila” that has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 passenger jet but weighs less than 500kg. Aquila can stay in the air for several months at a time.
The project focuses on lesser-developed parts of the world that struggle to connect, including Africa, and hinges on the rapid adoption of mobile phones. Local mobile telecom providers partner with Facebook and then offer their customers the Internet.org service—a trimmed-down version of the internet—for free.
In 2015, Internet.org was reinvented. The app was facing resistance in India for allegedly violating net neutrality by working with mobile carriers to favor the inclusion of some websites over others, thus making it harder for smaller companies to compete. While Facebook vehemently denied having such policies, it took the opportunity to rebrand its app under the umbrella of Internet.org. In addition, Facebook launched the Free Basics program with a promise that it would be open to all developers and would double down on privacy and security measures.
Even so, Free Basics was ultimately banned in India and even after its rebranding tour, it continues to face the same snag. Opponents note that the service inevitably creates a very biased internet experience for the user.
However, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is left unscathed. He stands by the belief that a limited internet service provided for free, flawed as this may be, is still better than no internet at all. By mid-2016, many countries in West, central, and southern Africa were signed up to Free Basics, and the app now has 40 million users around the world.
Google’s Project Loon
Despite Facebook’s successes, Google remains ahead of its competition. The flagship project of Google’s research and development facility “X” (previously Google X), Project Loon is also attempting to narrow the digital divide around the world, especially in Africa. Google uses broadband-emitting balloons that circumnavigate the world at an altitude of some 18 kilometres, where they create an aerial wireless network that can provide up to 4G-LTE speeds to an area 80 kilometres in diameter. The project was launched in 2013 with a pilot experiment in New Zealand. Because the helium-filled balloons are always in motion, the goal is to have enough balloons in the air so that when one balloon floats away, another is around to take its place. The average flight duration is 100 days. Project link is working on bringing the service to Africa. Until then, it is developing its other connectivity project in Africa: Project Link.
Project Link shares local infrastructure to build metropolitan fiber and Wi-Fi networks that offer faster and more reliable internet. Google built its first metro-fiber network in Kampala, Uganda, a city that had formerly been using pre-broadband speeds. Project Link is also building 1,000km of metro fiber in the Ghanaian cities of Accra, Tema, and Kumasi.
As Facebook and Google compete to connect Africa to the internet, they are both facing similar challenges. Bureaucratic and infrastructural obstacles are rife, and both teams’ projects remain controversial to certain public interest groups.
In October 2015, Google and Facebook worked together to lobby for global agreements for suppoerting high-altitude craft for providing internet access. Because Facebook’s business model is set on partnering with the local technology infrastructure, the company’s services face additional obstacles from civil society groups. Many of the mobile providers in Africa that Free Basics partners with are government-owned, so the internet service provided is at risk of censorship.
Then there is the question of their true intentions. Both Facebook and Google are keen on providing internet to remote areas, but almost too keen. Are their efforts altruistic or simply a part of the race to take advantage of a continent’s high population and ultimately, multiply profits? As Facebook and Google’s projects begin to grow, it remains to be seen how connectivity will affect Africa’s economy and, eventually, the revenue streams of these two titans of technology.