African subsea cables controlled by Big Tech – what could go wrong?

african cable system 2 Africa
2Africa subsea cable map. Image credit: Meta

ITEM: Google and Meta Platforms are building subsea cables that promise to boost international internet bandwidth and economic growth for various African nations. But there are worries that these cable systems could also give both companies an opportunity to establish unprecedented amounts of control over the internet.

Subsea cables have traditionally been the province of telco consortiums, though a handful of private subsea networks exist. Google started investing in subsea cable consortium projects in 2008, and Facebook soon followed. Today, according to Telegeography, Google has investments in 20 subsea networks, including six wholly owned systems. Meta is part of 15 consortium cable projects. Microsoft has invested in three cables, and is the major capacity buyer for two more, while Amazon has bought into two cable systems and is the major capacity buyer for three.

Google’s private Equiano cable – expected to be ready for service in Q4 this year – connects Lisbon and Cape Town, with an initial branch landing point in Lagos. Meta’s 2Africa cable (which is a consortium that includes China Mobile, MTN, Orange, Saudi Telecom, Telecom Egypt, Vodafone and WIOCC) is even more ambitious, looping Africa and connecting it to Europe and Asia when it goes live next year, though it will take until 2024 to connect all planned branch points.

The capacity benefits for African countries are fairly obvious – Google goes further, saying Equiano will not only boost Nigeria’s median download speeds by up to six times, but also reduce retail data prices 21%, and indirectly add $10 billion to the Nigerian GDP, as well as 1.6 million new jobs.

But while few doubt the benefits of additional internet capacity for African markets and the growth opportunities this creates, there’s still concern that cables controlled by content companies raise issues about how the internet works and who controls it, according to this article from Rest Of World:

… in a region where about 33% of the population is online, and connectivity is often limited, Meta and Google’s installation of Equiano and 2Africa suggests a more definitive goal: the lasting control of the global link for 1.4 billion people. In Africa, the least connected continent, the stakes of Google and Meta’s ambitions are stark.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that Big Tech companies are investing in infrastructure largely to meet their own bandwidth demands. Figures from Telegeography reveal that content providers consumed 6.3% of total international cable capacity in 2010. By 2021, they consumed 69% of it – Telegeography expects that figure to reach 78% five years from now.

This highlights a key difference between, say, a Google-owned cable and a traditional telco-run cable: Google controls much of the very content services running on those cables. While Big Tech companies are unlikely to use their subsea infrastructure to amplify their content services over the competition – if for no other reason that it would violate the principles of net neutrality that they have championed for years – they’re not approaching this from a pure common-carrier mindset either.

The question then becomes, what happens when Big Tech firms control both the pipe and content platforms that are effectively the equivalent of the internet for most users in developing markets. Nanjira Sambuli, a tech/ICT policy analyst based in Nairobi, says African governments need a plan for that:

“It’s one thing if Facebook is answerable to a country in terms of social media, but it’s another if they’re also controlling infrastructure,” she said. If they control the cables, internet companies could effectively dictate internet policy, even if that is not their explicit intent. Meta has confronted similar challenges with its Free Basics and Discover programs, which have been successful in bringing millions of people online but with content limitations that have drawn accusations of “digital colonialism” and being “poor internet for poor people.” 

Concerns about Big Tech subsea cable ownership (African or otherwise) may seem overblown. For one thing, Google is currently the only one that owns its own cable systems – Meta still invests exclusively in consortium models, so the extent of control it has over 2Africa is relatively limited.

On the other hand, we do know their business models and business practices, the latter of which has gotten Google and Meta in trouble with antitrust regulators around the globe. We also know that for all their talk about altruism and connecting the unconnected (which they might actually believe), at the end of the day the business model is what drives their business decisions. Tim Kelly, lead digital development specialist at the World Bank, tells RoW:

“We don’t know all of the implications of what a proprietary cable would mean,” said the World Bank’s Kelly. … But ultimately, he added, “they make their money through advertising, and they make their advertising by control of data, and therefore, one of the reasons that incentivizes them to own their own networks is because they can suck up every single bit of data from those networks.”

You can read the full story here for lots more details.

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