And the lights go out

Abandoned 5G & Busted Balloons Foil Kenya’s Next-Gen Internet Plans

By  |  January 24, 2021

Kenya, a country so often associated with being the first testing bed for technology innovation in Africa, is not having the best of times in that respect.

With 39 million out of 48 million people in Kenya already connected to the internet (more than many other countries in the developing world), the country boasts quite an inclusive and extensive connection network.

But two of the “coolest” projects initiated in Kenya to extend coverage have been dealt a death blow inside the first few weeks of 2021. It’s only the start of the year and Kenya has already seen much-anticipated 5G plans go awry and a fancy “internet balloon” project backed by Google get popped.

It all began on Tuesday, January 5, when Kenya’s largest telecom operator, Safaricom, announced that it will suspend deployment of its new Huawei-powered fifth-generation (5G) mobile network.

It was quite a surprising turn of events given that the company had already completed testing and trials of the new network’s high-speed mobile connections.

Only Lesotho and South Africa have small 5G networks up and running in Africa. Others like Nigeria, Gabon, Uganda, and Kenya only have trials to show for it.

It had been widely expected that Safaricom would make its 5G service available to customers by the end of 2020 or sometime in the first quarter of this year. Now, CEO of Safaricom, Peter Ndegwa, says the company will instead focus on converting millions of existing 2G and 3G customers to 4G service instead.

There’s been some speculation in local media circles that Safaricom pulled the plug on its 5G plans due to data security concerns around Huawei equipment.

Over the last few years, the U.S. government, under former President, Donald Trump, staged what seemed like a worldwide campaign to discourage nations and telcos from doing business with Huawei.

However, it has to be said that neither Ndegwa nor any other Safaricom official has mentioned anything to that effect. In fact, both the Kenyan government and Safaricom seem to have had a good relationship with Huawei, at least until now.

It’s strange to think they suddenly fell out of love with Huawei but it’s also strange that they suddenly pulled the plug on the whole arrangement. Whatever the case, there goes Kenya’s plans at deploying 5G in the near future.

Now, a little over two weeks after Safaricom shelved those 5G plans, the lights have been put out on Google’s Project Loon, which launched in Kenya last year, albeit after years of regulatory delays.

One of the projects of Google’s Moonshot Factory, Loon was a project designed to bring internet access to disconnected communities by means of suspended balloons. It was promoted as a cost-effective solution to the difficult challenge of bringing internet access to people in underserved remote areas.

Unveiled in 2013, Loon has in the past proved useful in Peru and Puerto Rico where they were deployed as a stop-gap for cell coverage after masts were destroyed in those places during natural disasters.

The Loon project was eventually piloted in Kenya in 2020, and it seemed to work. Over 35,000 users on the Telkom Kenya network, some in remote towns in Kenya, connected to the internet through a Loon balloon. Kenyan authorities said the balloons will help the country retain its competitive advantage in technological innovation.

So it came as a shocker when it was revealed by Google’s Head of Moonshot Factory, Aston Teller, that Loon is shutting down for reasons connected to an inability to find a sustainable business model.

For one, Loon came with the challenge of a carrier needing several balloons at once with each balloon costing tens of thousands of dollars and lasting only about five months. Plus it was hard to sell the idea to governments and international organisations.

So far, mum’s the word from Kenyan authorities on the matter even though the balloons that were tipped to take internet connectivity in Kenya to the next level have now been popped.

Featured Image Courtesy: Let Us Tweak

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