Say hello to Equiano

Set to arrive in Cape Town in July, Google’s Equiano subsea cable will establish a new high-capacity connection between Europe and Africa.
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Alistair Mokoena, Google SA.
Alistair Mokoena, Google SA.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the most underserved region in the world when it comes to internet infrastructure. And it doesn’t just lag a little, it lags substantially behind the rest of the globe.

This internet usage gap is caused by three main factors: affordability, a lack of digital literacy and limited consumer services, says Alistair Mokoena, country director at Google South Africa. But rather than only seeing this scenario in a negative light, the underdeveloped nature of sub-Saharan Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure presents significant investment and development opportunities that can serve as a catalyst for socioeconomic transformation across the region. An opportunity that Google is keen to tap into.

Google’s Equiano subsea cable will establish a new high-capacity connection of 144 Tbps between Europe and Africa. But why is Google getting involved in infrastructure development in the first place?

What’s in a name?

The new Equiano undersea cable is named after Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian-born writer whose memoir played an important role in the abolishment of slavery. Enslaved as a child in Africa, he was taken to the Caribbean and sold to a Royal Navy officer. Equiano spent some time working for sea captains and merchants, saving up his earnings from side trades until he eventually had enough to buy his freedom. Equiano’s book – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano – depicted the horrors of slavery and became one of the earliest bestsellers written by an African author. 

Mokoena is adamant that it’s not only about economic considerations. “Our mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful to society,” he says. As part of this mission, Google is building global infrastructure to help bring faster, more affordable internet to underserved communities so that they can access this information. “Infrastructure development can help boost affordability and increase uptake. Subsea cables are key to this.”

Starting in Portugal, the Equiano cable runs more than 12 000 km along the west coast of Africa, landing in Lomé (Togo); in Lagos (Nigeria); in Swakopmund (Namibia); in Rupert’s Bay (Saint Helena); and finally, in Melkbosstrand (South Africa). Equiano landed in Lomé in March and arrived in Nigeria at the end of April. The project forms part of Google’s $1 billion investment into Africa’s internet connectivity, which it announced in October 2021.

According to Mokoena, Equiano will increase international bandwidth capacity, which will, in turn, boost average internet speeds, making connectivity more affordable. The cable is set to carry approximately 20 times more network capacity than the last cable built to serve this region. But it’s not doing this alone. “We’ve worked with established local partners and experts to ensure that Equiano will be able to improve reliability in global communications and free flows of data. We expect to complete the project around July when Equiano lands in Cape Town,” Mokoena continues.

Equiano will be the first subsea cable in the world to incorporate optical switching at the fibre-pair level. This fibre pair level management approach represents a paradigm shift in the industry.

Alistair Mokoena, Google

And it’s not only about connectivity. Research from a 2021 study byAfrica Practice predicts that Equiano will boost job creation and real GDPgrowth relative to what GDP would have been without the cable. The researchsuggests that Equiano will create as much as 180 000 jobs in South Africa andboost the local economy to the tune of $7 billion.

Landing Africa’s newest undersea cable

Leveraging over 30 years of experience in the submarine cable business, Telkom Group brand Openserve is Google’s landing partner for the Equiano submarine cable in South Africa. According to Openserve’s chief commercial officer, Phila Dube, it will offer Google cable landing facilities in Melkbosstrand, as well as terrestrial services connecting to South African carrier-neutral datacentres. Not only does this partnership significantly increase connectivity between South Africa, Western Africa and Europe, it also enables Openserve to provide further diversity in existing international sub-sea routes and enhances its terrestrial capabilities across SA.

Unpacking how the subsea cable works, Dube explains that Equiano provides submarine fibre pairs to participating parties. Each fibre pair can carry approximately 16Tbps of traffic. The various SA parties investing in the cable will then connect to this fibre pair at the Melkbosstrand Cable Landing Station. These parties either need to provide the connection themselves or lease from another party in order to provide the backhaul into Cape Town’s major datacentres, he continues. A co-location facility has been purpose-built and is available at the Melkbosstrand exchange building to host any Equiano investor backhaul networking equipment. At the foreign endpoint in Portugal, each investor will need to procure dark fibre between the Lisbon cable station and the Lisbon Equinix datacentre where the capacity will be handed over.

Internet access via beams of light

Google’s connectivity initiatives don’t start and stop at Equiano. Taara is a project at X, Google’s moonshot factory, which seeks to bring affordable, high-speed internet to over four billion people around the world who are unconnected and under-connected. Taara uses beams of light to deliver high-speed, high-capacity connectivity over long distances. In the same way that traditional fibre uses light to carry data through cables in the ground, Taara uses a very narrow, invisible beam of light to transmit information at speeds as high as 20 gigabits per second. A link is created when two Taara terminals detect eachother’s beam of light and lock-in, much like a handshake, to create a high-bandwidth connection. Taara’s links offer fibre-like speed internet access in areas where it’s uneconomical or too difficult to install fibre – over rivers and sea straits, across rugged terrains and national parks, or in areas where it is unsafe to dig trenches for cables. But there are drawbacks of this approach. Signal reliability can be compromised by conditions like fog and haze, or interruptions in the connection, if, for example, a bird flies in front of the signal.

What makes Equiano somewhat unusual, Mokoena says, is that the cable leverages optical switching at the fibre-pair level, as opposed to the traditional approach of wavelength-level switching. Optical switches make it possible to branch or re-route optical signals along a desired communication path without having to convert the signal so it is possible for signals to be transmitted without compromising the advantages of high-speed optical communications.

This approach made sense for Google because it means greater flexibility; enabling it to add and reallocate capacity to different locations as needed, he notes. “Equiano will be the first subsea cable in the world to incorporate optical switching at the fibre-pair level. This fibre pair level management approach represents a paradigm shift in the industry.”

Understandably some challenges are to be expected when working on a project of this magnitude, Mokoena continues. One of which includes the role played by the weather, which can sometimes cause a delay in completing tasks on the agreed timelines. “Bringing affordable and abundant connectivity to people everywhere is an incredibly stubborn problem to crack and we won’t give up trying,” he says, adding that Google is commited to sharing what it has learned and wants to help creative innovators find each other – be it telcos, mobile network operators, cities, countries, governments, NGOs or technology companies. Not only will Equiano provide South Africa with additional international capacity – enabling more people to access the internet at reduced costs – it will also encourage more businesses to digitise their operations and increase their capabilities, creating new revenue streams and boosting the economy in the process, concludes Dube, confirming that the Openserve cable landing facilities are all set for Equiano to arrive. The only thing left to do, is wait.

* This feature was first published in the June edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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13 Aug
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