It is now passe to lament the ills of platform monopoly; with even casual observers being able to recite the many sins of Meta and Alphabet. However, while issues related to content dominate discourses in the Global North, Big Tech’s efforts to build massive internet on-ramps in the Global South have gone largely unnoticed.

Free Basics, the net-neutrality-infringing app, is undoubtedly the most notorious of these efforts. Before Meta decided it was in its best interests to stop publicizing its connectivity efforts, the company claimed in a briefing in 2021 that 300 million people were connected to the internet owing to its programs.

In more recent years though, companies such as Meta and Alphabet have quietly abandoned the façade of philanthropy and PR-friendly schemes involving balloons and solar-powered drones in favor of continental-scale, hard engineering projects. Indeed, both companies are on the cusp of completing subsea internet cables that will encircle the African continent and massively increase the region’s internet capacity.

Given Meta’s lamentable record as a steward of our data and means of communication, and the potential that exists for multi-layered control over internet access for millions, it’s essential we subject such connectivity programs to critical scrutiny.

Meta’s Investments in Africa

In India, activists, local tech companies, and later, the national telecom regulator, TRAI, successfully rebuffed Meta’s attempts to establish Free Basics in the country. One of the most damning accusations that emerged from this resistance was that of digital or data colonialism by tech companies.

With those claims in mind, it seems reasonable to examine Meta’s latest efforts at connectivity in the Global South. However, it would be misguided to focus only on the corporate rap sheet and to ignore the huge potential benefit of this infrastructure for many countries that lag well behind other parts of the world. As such it also seems apt to use the frame of digital development to understand the possible impacts of such initiatives.

Without a doubt, the most extensive and ambitious piece of Meta’s infrastructure program is the 2Africa submarine cable. Comprising 37,000 km connecting 33 countries, it will be the longest in the world upon completion in 2024. 2Africa is slated to provide nearly three times the total network capacity of all the subsea cables serving Africa today. For this project, Meta has partnered with telco heavyweights on the African continent – MTN, Orange, Telecom Egypt – as well as some global giants, including Vodafone, Saudi Telecom, China Mobile, and WIOCC.

Zero-rating is the practice of positive discrimination of mobile web content through billing management. The threat it poses to network neutrality and its entrenchment of powerful gatekeepers accounts for much of the opposition from activists and academics.

Building international connection capacity only goes so far, however, without a national backbone infrastructure to transmit data nationally at high speed. To that end, Meta has also been investing in terrestrial fiber in Africa, with plans for 900 km of cable in Zambia and most ambitiously with new plans to lay 2,000 km of cable across the Democratic Republic of Congo, creating a ‘digital corridor’ connecting the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

For Meta, this focus on infrastructure has not emerged out of the ether. It dovetails with the corporation’s other major connectivity program: Free Basics. Launched in 2013, Free Basics partners with a mobile carrier in each country that it operates in to offer its subscribers access to a suite of pared-down web apps, with Facebook as the showpiece. It offers access not to the whole internet but a curated selection of web apps, which do not count against the user’s data cap.

Meta’s stated rationale for launching the project was that 89% of the world’s population live in areas with existing cellular coverage and yet billions do not subscribe to a mobile data plan because the cost is prohibitive. Meta’s hope is that if people could get a taste of the internet for free, they would then be convinced to become a paying data subscriber, and presumably also, to upload their social lives onto Facebook.

According to research by Toussaint Nothias, in 2019, Free Basics was live in 28 African countries, with Facebook claiming presence in 65 worldwide. Precise numbers for Free Basics subscribers in African markets are hard to determine because Meta does not disclose the data, but at the end of 2019 it claimed to have over 100 million subscribers worldwide, and the service is currently live in two of Africa’s largest telecom markets: South Africa and Nigeria.

From my own research of the Nigerian market, all major carriers offer some form of zero-rated package that includes, at least, one of Meta’s apps. Zero-rating is the practice of positive discrimination of mobile web content through billing management. The threat it poses to network neutrality and its entrenchment of powerful gatekeepers accounts for much of the opposition from activists and academics. Certainly, in the case of Meta, its ubiquity in zero-rating packages plays a major role in its market dominance in the realms of instant messaging and social networking. The quest to consolidate that dominance may indeed explain Meta’s infrastructural turn.

Of course, Meta is not the only one seeking to enmesh the African continent into global data networks. Alphabet is wrapping up its own massive subsea cable connecting South Africa to Portugal with four landing points along west Africa. Unlike Meta, Alphabet’s Equiano cable is wholly owned by the company. Alphabet’s apps also feature prominently in zero rating packages available across the African continent.

Huawei, meanwhile, has made significant African investments over the past five years as part of the Chinese government’s Digital Silk Road policy. These investments have focused more on terrestrial projects. Indeed, unofficial industry estimates place the amount of terrestrial fiber funded by Huawei or ZTE at over 50%.

“Everyone can Benefit…from a Digitally Connected World”

So, how can we try to make sense of Meta’s investments and other connectivity programs like it? What is at stake, and why should we care? It is instructive in this regard to compare the stated goals of Meta, with those objectives that can reasonably be inferred.

Rafts of statistics lay bare the scale of Sub-Saharan Africa’s connectivity challenge. According to the 2021 African e-Connectivity Index published by GSMA, only 28% of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa had mobile internet connectivity in 2020 (compared to 49% of people globally). Mobile data traffic per smartphone (GB per month) was 4.7 in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2022, compared to a global average of 16, while around 75% of mobile subscribers in Southern and Western Africa connect via 2G or 3G. According to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, global affordability rankings for mobile internet place some of the region’s largest markets well behind the leading pack with Nigeria 41st, South Africa 43rd, and Kenya 72nd.

There is undoubtedly a strong case to be made for addressing the global inequities in internet access that are manifest in many parts of Africa, especially given the economic and socio-cultural advantages of developing network infrastructure. Many studies have indeed attempted to quantify those advantages, with Meta claiming, in the case of 2Africa, that the continent would experience a 0.5% rise in GDP in the two-three years following the cable going live. The prospect of such benefits accruing to many of the beleaguered economies of Sub-Saharan Africa are tantalizing indeed. Meta capitalizes on the perceived relationship between connectivity and development, claiming 2Africa will ensure “everyone can benefit from the economic, educational, and social advantages of a digitally connected world”. Indeed, Meta has long cloaked its efforts in the rhetoric of philanthropy, famously claiming that connectivity is a human right. What Meta does not disclose, however, contradicts any claim to philanthropic intent.

Motives Inferred…

Africa represents one of the last major untapped markets for web platforms: arguably, it is the internet’s next frontier. Part of whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony to the US Senate, was that Facebook understood that much of the Global North was saturated and “that if they want the company to grow, they have to find new users”. Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70% under 30, and Facebook penetration at around half of the global average. However, the risks are also high with deficits in roads and electrical infrastructure, political and macroeconomic instability, and structural obstacles in terms of user affordability and digital literacy. These factors open the door to actors with abundant resources – and no need for an immediate return of investment – such as web platforms. Meta, with its deep pockets, may simply be making a long-term bet on the demographic dividends offered by Africa.

Meta has long cloaked its efforts in the rhetoric of philanthropy, famously claiming that connectivity is a human right. What Meta does not disclose, however, contradicts any claim to philanthropic intent.

Relatedly, despite a recent flurry of data protection laws, including Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya, that have all proposed, passed, or regulated data protection laws over the last five years, nearly half of Africa’s 55 countries have no privacy rules – meaning the regulatory/legislative environment in many parts of Africa is comparatively loose. This factor makes those markets akin to a sandbox for Meta in which the company can trial products and evade the unfavorable media and regulatory attention it receives in North America and Europe.

Moreover, given the market power and lobbying strength of corporations like Meta, it is an acute challenge for the best-resourced national regulators to steer the behavior of the platforms away from monopoly and surveillance and toward socially desirable ends, let alone those operating in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Indeed, the chastening impact of Meta’s treatment at the hands of India’s telecom regulator may have been the catalyst for Meta’s pivot to engineering as the route to user growth. The ejection of Free Basics from India in 2016 – the result of a decisive pro-net neutrality ruling from TRAI and fierce resistance from civil society groups and the local tech sector – was a stinging rebuke but also a learning moment for Facebook.

As scholars Bowker and Star remind us, infrastructure is invisible (when it works, at least), and Meta’s executives, keen to evade scrutiny, may well have been listening.

A final imperative is to gain secure valuable data transmission capacity. According to TeleGeography, in 2012, content providers consumed less than 10% of total international cable capacity. By 2020, it had grown to 66%. Specifically, Facebook apps account for an estimated 20% of all internet traffic in Africa, but Meta owns no data centers on the continent. Much of the content consumed on Facebook is therefore stored in data centres in Europe, meaning that in order to refresh Points of Presence (caches of locally-stored content), high-capacity submarine cables are essential. When you couple this with the relative dearth of carrier neutral data centres in Africa – barely 2% of the world’s capacity across the whole continent – then the need for massive data transmission capacity to reach platform data centres in Europe is clear.

Between Digital Development and Digital Colonialism

Returning to the two frames introduced at the outset, we can see how they help us interpret Meta’s efforts more clearly.

The possibility that Meta’s infrastructure investments will generate significant socio-economic benefits would certainly strengthen the digital development of many African nations. According to research commissioned by Alphabet on its Equiano cable, its landing point in Togo should see an increase in internet speed from 10 to 21 MBPS, a 14% price drop, and tens of thousands of new jobs in the tech sector and those adjacent to it. Meta has published similar predictions. While we would do well to remain skeptical of the origin of these studies, they do align with mainstream thinking on the positive developmental impacts of digital infrastructure, such as the World Bank’s Digital Development Partnership.

Meta also claims that the bandwidth on 2Africa will be available “on a fair and equitable basis”. Providing local content creators and internet service providers (ISPs) access to open access cables of speed and capacity that dwarfs that of current submarine infrastructure could boost the local digital economy and the agency of citizen-users. However, by eclipsing current infrastructure it also potentially renders existing cables obsolete, cutting out a swathe of the market – much of which is owned, in part, by African companies – creating a startling level of concentration.

The downstream impacts of Meta’s 2Africa cable, as discussed earlier, could result in many positive developments for Sub-Saharan Africa. However, these would constitute the secondary effects of what must primarily be a hunt for eyeballs on the African continent.

Additionally, in the absence of local data center capacity, much of the data generated in Africa, including government, civic, and health data, will be sent offshore via infrastructure owned in part by one colossally powerful platform company. Although Meta will only have access to the data transmitted via its wholly-owned and controlled fiber pairs (and not those of its consortium partners or any other actor that buys or trades its way onto the cable), the specter of dependency looms over these arrangements in terms of Africa’s connections to the global internet.

Certainly, Meta’s monopolistic tendencies in other arenas raise concerns that it could become a vertically integrated ISP, from screen to data center and all points in-between. The possibility that Meta could also leverage this power to assert even more control over digital infrastructure – payment systems, the metaverse, etc. – could lead to data extraction in greater swathes of social life. News that South Africa’s Competition Commission is set to investigate whether Meta and Alphabet compete unfairly with local news organizations is a favorable development, but remains something of an outlier in the African antitrust environment.

A fork in the road that leads away from the prospect of control and dependency may be coming in terms of the volume of data capacity being built in Africa. In 2010, the Internet Society set a goal of 80% of continental internet traffic to move within Africa’s borders. A decade later, the emergence of IXPs such as NAPAfrica meant that while 1/3rd of Kenya and Nigeria’s traffic was local in 2012, by 2020 it had more than doubled to 70%. Calls for data localization have certainly been growing louder in Africa, driven in part by concerns over government, oil, and gas data being sent offshore. However, given that a US corporation just acquired a majority stake in the largest data center operator in Africa, and many others are operated by Huawei, Amazon, and Microsoft, data localization could end up being a pyrrhic victory.

The downstream impacts of Meta’s 2Africa cable, as discussed earlier, could result in many positive developments for Sub-Saharan Africa. However, these would constitute the secondary effects of what must primarily be a hunt for eyeballs on the African continent. Meta’s rapacious model of platform capitalism means that any alignment of its goals with the digital development of those African nations its cable serves would be an unintended, and perhaps fleeting, consequence. The well-documented harms of Meta’s products on political discourse, societal cohesion, as well as the potentially anti-competitive impacts for Africa’s promising tech sector, mean that infrastructure designed primarily in the interests of a powerful platform company should be treated with due caution. A far better scenario is that critical internet infrastructure is designed and built around the public interest and the goal of digital inclusion, serving populations rather than data centers, and that results in equitable access to robust national broadband networks. In the absence of that ideal, however, Meta’s investments in the continent may be presenting Africa with a devil’s bargain.