STF Mag Feature: Africa's Digital Backbone

As published in the May Issue of SubTel Forum Magazine

By Chris Wood
May 10, 2022

Widespread access to secure, reliable and affordable internet is fundamental to the digitisation of economies and businesses throughout Africa, which promises to deliver enhanced economic growth, innovation in business, job creation and other improvements to the daily lives of its population.

Progress is being made at a rapid pace, driven by a range of contributory factors that include Africa’s rapidly growing population – its youth population in particular; the increasing affordability and usage of mobile phones; regulatory initiatives to encourage competition, driving cheaper and more accessible services; and greater investment in both terrestrial and subsea infrastructure to increase bandwidth availability and reduce delivery costs.

  • Africa’s population: 1.4 billion[1]
  • By 2050, Africa’s population is forecast to grow by 80% (to nearly 2.5 billion[2])
  • Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70% of sub-Saharan Africans under the age of 30[3]
  • In 2021, Africa had 601.6 million[4] internet users and an internet penetration rate of just 43.1%[5] – compared to 66.2%[6] for the world as a whole

Africa, like much of the world, is experiencing significant and sustained growth in the availability and use of connected devices, apps and content, increasingly via 4G/5G networks and other new communications technologies.

The popularity of social media and content services such as Facebook, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and Google is exploding. As of December 2020, for example, there were more than 230 million Facebook subscribers in Africa[7], up from 170 million in 2017 and just 50 million in 2013.

The Internet of Things (IOT) is just starting to impact many industries, with new technologies enabling autonomous drones (eg. for aerial mapping and delivery services) and remotely operated security cameras; and new services such as remote health, automated factory management and logistics tracking now being deployed. All are reliant upon the availability of reliable, high-capacity, low latency internet connectivity.

When you add in the roll-out of 5G, the ongoing and widespread migration of businesses to cloud-based solutions and the large numbers of people continuing to work from home (in response to COVID-19), the opportunities for businesses involved in delivering connectivity are immense.

However, for consumers and businesses in Africa to be able to take advantage of these new capabilities, Africa needs a strong digital backbone with the capacity, reach and resilience to fully deliver the benefits throughout the continent.

More international capacity – a digital transformation imperative

The construction of a truly fit-for-purpose digital backbone for Africa is critically dependent upon the availability of sufficient international bandwidth, on multiple subsea cables and landing in multiple locations the length of the continent’s coastline.

Continued growth in mobile phone ownership throughout the continent, together with exploding use of bandwidth-hungry services and applications is driving demand for ever more international capacity – needed to reach cloud-based content, services and applications. At the same time, global cloud operators and content providers are investing in international capacity to migrate their content into Africa, to deliver an improved end-user experience for consumers.

As a result, demand for capacity on existing subsea cables serving Africa – including EASSy, WACS and Seacom – has been unprecedented, with multi-100 Gigabit per second (Gbps) solutions no longer the exception; and multiple subsea (and terrestrial backhaul) systems being employed to maximise service resilience.

Subsea cable owners have responded by upgrading existing systems to add more capacity. However, it is clear that a further round of investment must be made in new subsea systems if Africa is to secure the huge increase in subsea inventory needed to meet the future demands of the continent. New systems also offer the potential to increase reliability through new routes and new landing points on the continent, and opportunities to deliver cost-efficiencies through purchasing at scale and landing in open access DCs.

The desire to secure greater and more easily scalable capacity at lower unit cost  is what has driven the development, design and ongoing deployment of both Google’s Equiano cable and the Facebook-led 2Africa system. These two cables – scheduled to be in service by end 2022 and end-2023/4 respectively – will each add more than 100 Terabits per second (Tbps) of capacity to Africa’s international capacity inventory.

Leading African wholesale capacity provider, WIOCC, has purchased a fibre pair on both systems to extend its strategic investment in hyperscale inventory across multiple systems and expand its ability to offer clients the resilient, high-capacity, pan-African international connectivity they require over its unique hyperscale network.

Equiano cable box-out

The 144Tbps capacity, 12,000+km Equiano cable runs from Portugal along Africa’s western coastline to South Africa. WIOCC and Google partnered to land the entire cable directly into WIOCC Group company Open Access Data Centre (OADC)’s carrier-neutral data centre (DC) in Lagos, Nigeria, bringing roughly 20 times more international capacity than any other submarine cable previously serving the region.

2Africa cable box-out

When completed, the 45,000+km 2Africa cable will be the longest subsea cable system in the world, will significantly improve connectivity within Africa and will increase connectivity between Africa and the rest of the world. It has a design capacity of 180Tbps and once complete will interconnect 33 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. In Amanzimtoti, South Africa the cable will be landed directly into OADC’s Durban DC.

Bridging connectivity gaps – extending inland

WIOCC’s position as a Landing Station Partner for both the Equiano and 2Africa cables is crucial to making increased international connectivity available beyond the immediate locality of the landing stations, via national, metro and local networks.

Landing subsea cables directly into carrier-neutral, open-access DCs encourages unhindered and cost-effective onward terrestrial connection to other networks, DCs, internet exchange points (IXPs) and customer sites, supporting Government initiatives to increase broadband coverage by extending the benefits of the improved connectivity to a greater proportion of the population.

WIOCC is continuing to extend and expand its pan-African hyperscale network in multiple countries, enhancing its national and metro fibre networks to support local operators in delivering hyperscale capacity to end-users.

Rapid growth in data centre demand

Data centres are another critical element in the digitisation of Africa, with demand for such facilities in Africa growing rapidly. The largest markets are populated with multiple DCs supporting business cost-optimisation initiatives, the ongoing migration of services and applications into the cloud, and service providers’ wishes to extend network reach into new markets.

The arrival of global cloud operators and content providers has also stimulated growth in the African DC market, with a recent round of international investments, bringing global players such as Equinix and Digital Realty into Africa for the first time.

WIOCC has benefited from this appetite for investment, closing a $200m debt and equity raise late last year. Much of this funding is to be invested – through OADC – in deploying a pan-African network of strategically located. world-class, open-access, Tier III DCs, designed to meet the demands of the cloud operator and wholesale community, as well as key verticals including Finance, Government and Oil & Gas.

Increasingly, large organisations are recognising that presence in a single high-capacity DC is no longer sufficient to address a country or region. Instead, the need to extend connectivity deeper into new markets, to enable the serving of content as close as possible to its source and its consumption (for improved availability and performance), and to support deployment of the next generation of latency-sensitive applications, will increasingly require a mesh of appropriately scaled DCs across multiple countries and cities. Wider availability of in-country facilities will also support compliance with national legislation requirements on issues such as disaster recovery and data sovereignty.

OADC is undertaking phased deployment of a mesh of regional and edge DCs across the continent, with initial deployment already underway. By establishing world-class, open-access facilities at key connectivity hubs throughout Africa fully connected into its largest network infrastructure, it will be possible to truly support the deployment aspirations of cloud operators, content providers, application providers, telecoms operators and other businesses, facilitating the creation of a vibrant, pan-African cloud ecosystem.

Improving South Africa’s connectivity: a sign of what is to come

The clearest representation of this vision is WIOCC’s expanding infrastructure in South Africa; one of the continent’s most connected and most technologically advanced markets.

WIOCC continues to make significant investments in multiple subsea systems serving the country, has built a national hyperscale backbone offering multiple high-capacity and diverse routes between major cities, owns Metro networks covering key business hubs and interconnecting multiple Points of Presence (PoPs) and is deploying, through WIOCC Group company Open Access Data Centres (OADC), a growing network of hyperscale, regional and edge DCs.

This hyperscale digital backbone is increasingly being used by mobile operators to support 5G network deployment, by internet service providers (ISPs) and fibre operators to extend network reach into new markets, and by cloud and content providers to explore the opportunities enabled by content delivery to the network edge.

With many more OADC Edge DCs coming on stream across the country in the coming months and expansion into more countries planned for later this year, Africa’s digital backbone is being rapidly expanded to support the demands of digital transformation across the continent.

[1] Statista, 2022

[2] Statista, 2022

[3] United Nations, 2021

[4] Internet World Stats, 2021

[5] Internet World Stats, 2021

[6] Internet World Stats, 2021

[7], 2022

About the Author

WIOCC CEO Chris Wood is making an enduring contribution to communications in Africa.

He has grown WIOCC into Africa’s digital backbone, the organisation responsible for the continent’s first, truly hyperscale network infrastructure, and has been instrumental in improving Africa’s global connectivity and digital infrastructure.

Chris’s vision is driving WIOCC’s strategic investments in major submarine cable systems serving Africa; the deployment of hyperscale terrestrial fibre infrastructure interconnecting key markets and subsea cables; metropolitan network rollout; and the launch of transformational, pan-African data centre operator OADC, with its network of open-access, carrier-neutral, hyperscale, regional and edge data centres that support interconnected, integrated ecosystems.

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