The Day Africa Finally Connects Itself

Mar 16 , 2019
By Ben Roberts

The new route being established between Cape Town and Cairo will give Africa a boost on interconnectivity it has never achieved before, writes Ben Roberts (, group chief technical and innovation officer at Liquid Telecom.

When mobile phones took off rapidly 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 cables have followed the route of Africa’s roads, railways and ports, placing it into an immediate infrastructure bunker, since Africa has so far failed to achieve the north-south or east-west transportation routes that characterises every other continent in the world.

Traveling from Cape Town to Cairo takes eight 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 too long ago Africans traveling east to west on the continent had to fly via Europe to reach the other side of their own land mass.

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

From port-based entry points the undersea cable stretch from Europe various ports in Africa. Only a few direct connections existed between countries across the continent.

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 connection cables.

New networks have driven down 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 a quarter of a million dollars for a 10Gbps wavelength from Johannesburg to London - compared to less than 25,000 dollars 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 dollars, a more than 80pc drop.

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 any reach that has so far been 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 fiber optic cable network stretching 60,000Km from 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 to be routed undersea to Europe and back to Africa, significantly improving internet speeds.

The laws of physics provide a sum of 9mls 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 209mls it has been taking on the much longer path through London and Southern Europe.

With cross-border internet routes made operational, data that today takes 29mls through the UK will move in just 38mls from Mombasa to Kinshasa. Data from Djibouti to Douala will move four times faster, and 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 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-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 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.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 16,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 985]

Ben Roberts (, group chief technical and innovation officer at Liquid Telecom.

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