What the Google and Facebook undersea cables really mean for South Africans

What the Google and Facebook undersea cables really mean for South Africans


The Equiano and 2Africa undersea cables will substantially increase South Africa’s international Internet capacity but won’t increase consumer broadband speeds or substantially decrease prices — despite Google’s claims to the contrary.

When completed, Google’s Equiano cable will add 144 Tbps to South Africa’s undersea data capacity, and Facebook’s 2Africa will offer 180 Tbps on key parts of its system.

The Equiano cable will connect South Africa to Portugal, and Google has claimed it will triple South Africa’s Internet speeds.

Though this would be a significant improvement, it is a curious claim.

Several undersea cables already land in South Africa, including WACS, EASSy, Seacom, SAT3/SAFE, and SACS — and these cables are not even remotely close to running at maximum capacity.

“Compared to a decade ago, just before the launch of WACS and Seacom, it was a different picture,” MetroFibre Networx chief technology officer Johann Pretorius told MyBroadband.

“Capacity was relatively scarce, with limited choice contributing to the high unit cost of bandwidth and relatively low maximum capacities available.”

Pretorius said extra undersea cable capacity is less likely to impact pricing or resilience as much as WACS, Seacom, and EASSy did.

“It is more likely to impact Google’s approach to the market — offering capacity as a loss leader to stimulate demand for Google’s real revenue driver, which is ‘eyeball revenue’ (through advertising).”

Originally scheduled to complete in 2021, Google revised Equiano’s deployment date to later in 2022.

It landed in Togo in March, shortly followed by Nigeria in April.

Google has also promised that Equiano will reduce Internet prices by 16% to 21% and increase the resiliency of South Africa’s international connectivity.

While increased competition in subsea cables could encourage some price cuts, Google’s pricing claim is also curious as international bandwidth comprises less than 16% of the cost of a broadband connection in South Africa.

In other words, even if Equino reduces the cost of international bandwidth to zero in South Africa, it could not cause a 16% retail price reduction.

However, some price reductions are expected, according to Telkom and Frogfoot.

“We expect that the additional bandwidth will gradually drive prices down over time,” Telkom told MyBroadband.

Frogfoot sales and marketing head Shane Chorley said that although extra undersea capacity will bring down prices, it won’t be substantial.

“The undersea component is only one part of the pricing,” Chorley said.

MetroFibre’s Pretorius said he doesn’t expect to see significant pricing moves short of Google coming to market with a deliberate loss-leader strategy.

Instead, he expects broadband providers will be offered more international bandwidth for what they are currently paying.

Paul Butschi, co-founder of Cool Ideas

The cables’ true impact on end-users is the alternative international Internet routes they are bringing to South African shores.

“Typically, additional cables benefit from more competition and some additional redundancies. It’s not often multiple cables are affected [by outages] at the same time along the same coast,” Cool Ideas co-founder Paul Butschi told MyBroadband.

“Also, the new design is supposed to be less susceptible to breaks.”

Telkom agreed, saying a key benefit of new undersea cables is the additional route diversity.

The redundancy provided by Equiano and 2Africa landing in South Africa goes a long way in ensuring connections are not disrupted.

With the two cables, South Africa could better handle incidents like the simultaneous WACS and SAT-3 cable breaks in March 2020.

The issue was resolved after a repair ship was dispatched to fix both cables. However, South Africans were still left with degraded Internet speeds for over a month.

Facebook’s 2Africa system will be one of the world’s most extensive undersea cables, with connections running from Great Britain around both coasts of Africa to India and Pakistan.

The cable could massively increase Internet capacity in many data-starved regions but is also unlikely to provide greater consumer broadband speeds or major price cuts for South Africa.

Facebook also stated that it increased 2Africa’s cable burial depth by 50% compared to other systems and will have routing that avoids known subsea disturbances.

Facebook announced in 2021 that undersea surveying of potential routing for 2Africa had been completed, and manufacturing on the cable is underway.

The first segment of 2Africa is expected to be deployed in 2022.

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