The Digital Corridors blog series explores the rapidly expanding interconnection between major metros in and across regions. Digital corridors provide the interconnectivity necessary to turn tremendous opportunities into reality–which is exactly what’s happening now in and around the continent of Africa.
As the second largest and second most populous continent worldwide, Africa is experiencing significant growth in internet demand and content consumption through the fast-expanding use of mobile technologies such as LTE/5G and with the alternative of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite communications in development. Supporting this growth are digital corridors that run along the East and West coasts, North to Europe and South to South Africa. Together, the new cable systems under development and an increase in international carrier connectivity will provide the extensive capacity increases and competitive downward pressure on cost of bandwidth, bringing affordable internet and locally hosted content to Africa’s digital economies improving the health, education, prosperity and welfare of its almost 1.3 billion population.
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Taking a closer look at Africa’s countries and the massive population distribution
While the total population of Africa is considerable, its population density is unevenly distributed. Of the 58 countries that comprise the African continent, just seven countries make up 50% of the total population (680 million), while 16 countries account for 75% of the population (1 billion).
Experts estimate that only 46.7% of Africa’s population is connected to the internet—less than the global average of 63.2%. However, the gap is closing rapidly, for reasons we explore in this article. According to TeleGeography, Africa has an average mobile usage per capita of 87% (close to 1.17 billion subscriptions) and fixed broadband of just 8.9% of households as of September 2021.
Due to the isolation and inaccessibility of cities and communities in some African countries—particularly in the interior of the continent—and a historic lack of infrastructure or terrestrial connectivity to support wired broadband, the use of mobile networks for internet access is the norm. The table below ranks the 16 largest African nations by population size and details mobile and broadband penetration within each country.
Source of Data: TeleGeography and the Nigerian Communications Commission
Younger population is driving mobile and online entertainment growth
Africa is demographically unique because it has the youngest population of any continent. As of 2021, around 40% of the population was aged 15 years and younger, compared to a global average of 26%. The median age on the continent is around 20 years, which represents considerable latent demand for gaming and e-sports in Africa. Demand that could be met with ubiquitous and affordable internet access. This more youthful, mobile-savvy population represents a huge growth sector for telecom/mobile and OTT providers.
African online entertainment, including video streaming services, is also in a rapid growth phase. Spurred by the young population and increasing internet connectivity, the world’s largest entertainment companies are lining up to satisfy this demand from a huge new audience. However, it’s gratifying to see that locally produced content and media is experiencing demand that’s predicted to exceed that of the global giants.
Assessing the maturity of internet services
In “Moving Toward an Interconnected Africa: the 80/20 initiative”, the Internet Society (ISOC) strongly advocates the role of internet exchanges (IXPs) in creating local hubs for internet traffic exchange and content distribution through public peering, which delivers superior end-user experience at lower cost. IXPs provide a platform for local content caching, reduction in international “tromboning” of traffic (along the digital corridor) and much lower latency. The resulting affordability of access and improved end-user experience promotes internet use and traffic growth, which raises revenues of broadband ISPs and mobile network operators in a virtuous cycle.
East and West Coast digital corridors support internet capacity growth
Africa’s intra-regional and international internet capacity growth is overwhelmingly due to the submarine cable systems that connect East and West Africa with Europe and the rest of the world. Terrestrial international routes are not a feasible alternative but are essential in connecting the coastal hubs with the interior and landlocked nations. The digital corridors run exclusively over these cable routes: North to Europe and South to South Africa, as shown on the map below.
African Undersea Cables, by Steve Song, Many Possibilities
There are four main routes served by this extensive number of subsea communications cable networks:
West Coast of Africa to Europe
- ACE (Africa Coast to Europe)
- WACS (West Africa Cable System)
- Equiano (Google owned – under construction). Expected length 12,000+ km and 200 Tbps design capacity on parts.
- 2Africa (Consortium – under construction). 2Africa is the longest subsea cable in the world with a length of 45,000 km (nearly 28,000 miles) and offering 180 Tbps design capacity on key parts.
West Coast of Africa to Latin America
West Coast of Africa to Asia-Pacific
East Coast of Africa to Europe
- 2Africa (Consortium – under construction)
The role of digital corridors in expanding internet access and increasing local content
We noted in our Middle East Digital Corridors blog that government regulation and telco cartels have an adverse effect on pricing whenever they limit competitive choice. A major factor as a general theme across Africa affecting growth of broadband penetration is the tendency of central governments to control broadband access to its citizens. The close regulation of terrestrial broadband offers investors limited opportunities to innovate and develop fixed infrastructure which impacts affordability for the majority of the populations in a significant number of countries. Given the growth of Africa’s digital corridors and the increasing availability of affordable network technologies at scale, the factors that most restrict growth of internet services and growth of the digital economy are a) insufficient local network capacity through lack of investment b) restricted access to that capacity though policy and regulation and c) pricing of that capacity (which if high, has the same effect on consumption as b).
Inflated pricing, at any point within the telecommunication networks supporting internet services, affects the entire end-to-end value chain adversely, resulting in a lack of affordable and adequate bandwidth, ultimately decreasing end-consumer consumption and depressing service provider revenues.
For Africa’s coastal cities and nations, submarine cable systems, especially the new high-capacity ones supported by digital media giants, bring increased capacity and competition on the digital corridors, creating downward pressure on upstream internet transit pricing, positively affecting the entire end-to-end value chain. However, for Africa’s interior cities and landlocked nations, the cost of national backbone and carrier services to the coastal hubs will continue to put a brake on growth unless restricted competition, capacity and affordability constraints on these inland routes are addressed by governments, ISPs and local content producers.
Carrier Neutrality and a Global platform – Equinix MainOne facility, Lagos, Nigeria
Through the soon to be completed acquisition of MainOne, the leading West African data center and connectivity solutions provider, Equinix will finally have facilities in this most populous region of the continent. The ethos and approach of both companies are closely aligned and under the continued regional leadership of Funke Opeke, founder of MainOne, considerable positive benefits of this union—to the enterprises and people of Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire—are expected.
How Equinix is adding value to the African digital corridor
With subsea cable landing systems in Equinix International Business Exchange™ (IBX®) data centers in Barcelona, Lisbon, Genoa and Bordeaux, Equinix is creating a global submarine cable mesh with data centers positioned at critical coast points to connect the northern and southern hemispheres. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) subsea cable routes are also part of the digital corridors within this mesh.
Mobile technology is transforming people’s lives, with Africans using mobile devices to access financial services, healthcare and other key services. Vendor neutrality at Equinix offers more cost-effective choices for telco/mobile and ISP services, including lower international connectivity costs.
Equinix will be a prime mover in interconnecting Africa with the rest of the world on its global digital infrastructure platform, Platform Equinix. Equinix Fabric™, Equinix Metal® and Network Edge will offer greater interconnection, compute and storage capacity, and access to virtual network services through the intended acquisition of MainOne, a leading West African data center and connectivity solutions provider, solidifying our commitment to expanding Africa’s global interconnectivity.
In a future blog we will explore further how the many improvements in international and regional connectivity, local content origination, Internet Exchange and peering will place West Africa, and particularly Nigeria, at the forefront of the digital age.
To learn more about how Equinix Fabric software-defined interconnection connects subsea cable communication networks with other digital infrastructure and services on demand worldwide, read the Equinix Fabric data sheet.
 Wordometers, UN, National and Official estimates.
 AFRICA GAMING MARKET – GROWTH, TRENDS, COVID-19 IMPACT, AND FORECASTS (2022 – 2027), Mordor Intelligence, 2021
 Netflix May Reach 2.6M Subscribers in Africa by End of 2021, Analyst Estimates, Hollywood Reporter, August 26, 2021
 Moving Toward an Interconnected Africa: The 80/20 Initiative Report, Internet Society, July 6, 2021