ENCIRCLING AFRICA: FACEBOOK

Undersea cable that is developed to link land masses has been a regular project of Facebook’s executives.

In the past, the company has been involved in projects that linked markets in North America, Europe and East Asia.  In those efforts, Facebook shared the costs of the investment burden with telecommunications companies who were lacking in cash to lay down the cable on their own.  Analysts comment that Facebook, as one of the biggest users of bandwidth, sees the rationality of cutting out the middleman and acquiring the capacity at cost by laying the networks themselves.  Presently, the company is in talks to participate in laying underwater data cable that would circle the African continent.  This is an effort to drive down its bandwidth costs and make it easier for the company to sign up more social media users in the developing nation.  Even though Facebook spokesmen have declined to talk about the project, a fair amount of information is available about the ongoing project.  The three-stage project has been named “Simba” after the lead character in “The Lion King” and is expected to link up with “beachheads” in several countries on Africa’s east, west and Mediterranean coast.  To date, the exact route is not known.  Industry spokesmen say that the Simba project is “uniquely ambitious.”  The project would give Facebook’s European and Asian data centers a dedicated link to growing African markets where its apps (WhatsApp in particular) are already popular.  Much like Amazon’s approach in India, Facebook has funded regional networks in developing economies like Uganda to help connect the roughly 3.8 billion people across the globe who still lack internet access.  It’s expected that the move could also benefit Facebook’s partner telecom companies like MTN Group and Vodaphone that already have booming populations of customers in South Africa and Nigeria.  The telecom partners would help pay for the cable in exchange for some of its fiberoptic capacity.  Of additional interest is the fact that Alphabet/Google is also in talks to build a cable system called “Equiano” around Africa’s western coast.  Tech companies like Facebook and Alphabet have traditionally avoided selling bandwidth on their cables because of the regulatory burdens that come with that process.  Thus, Facebook’s nonprofit, Internet.org, has financed access to a small group of websites through Free Basics, a no-cost wireless service offered in several countries.  In so doing, they have set up whole strands of fiber optics that allow them to shuttle their data through private networks separated from the broader internet.  Consequently, Facebook is one of several large technology companies that have taken a growing role in “planning and financing the internet’s plumbing to serve their interests.” (ref WSJ)  Along the way, they have supplanted the telecom companies that once dominated the industry.  According to analysts, the project in Africa could cost around $1 billion to build and would include “a lot of politics to work through.”  All bets, however, are that Facebook will persist, as the project is consistent with their long-term planning needs.

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