Facebook Inc. has increased the number of its African users to 170 million and plans to expand further by adding wifi hotspots and laying fiber-optic cables in a bid to spread its reach outside of developed markets.
The figure is 42 percent higher than when the US social network first opened an African office in 2015, Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing, said in an interview in Johannesburg. The rollout of wifi and free Internet products in Nigeria and Kenya will be done via partnerships with international wireless carriers such as Emirates Telecommunications Group Co., known as Etisalat, and closely held Surf of Kenya and Coollink.ng of Nigeria, she said.
Facebook also announced the construction of 770 kilometers (478 miles) of fiber-optic cables in Uganda alongside Bharti Airtel Ltd. of India earlier this year. “There is no magic bullet to provide the internet to people on the continent,” Everson said near the site of Facebook’s new, larger office in Johannesburg. “We are using everything available to us, including rolling out express wifi, building fiber, and testing our Aquila project,” she said, referring to unmanned solar-powered planes that beam down internet connectivity.
The plans are part of a long-term investment push by Facebook in Africa, the social network’s least developed market with less than 10 percent of its 1.86 billion users worldwide. The Menlo Park, California-based company is trying to take advantage of a young population, greater connectivity and the increasing availability and affordability of smartphones to access new customers. Other US companies targeting African growth include Google Inc., which said last month it’s laying fiber-optic cable and easing access to cheaper Android phones.
“People are sensitive to data prices on the continent. Infrastructure is expensive and that is why we are looking for partners,” Everson said. “We are partnering with telecommunications infrastructure projects, and, as a result, bring down the price of data.”
The company’s instant-messaging service WhatsApp is proving “very popular” in Africa, she said, more so than Facebook Messenger. Facebook’s attempt to connect rural Africans last year was scuppered by an exploding SpaceX rocket. While the loss was disappointing, Facebook is using a combination of land-based and satellite technologies to roll out wifi hotspots and is evaluating other options as they become available, the executive said.