Taking the skies

Balloons Out, Blimps Are Next To Take Internet Access Airborne In Africa

By  |  February 7, 2022

As replacement for excruciatingly setting up Pishkin-tall cell towers or intensively unearthing miles of debris to make space for endless fiber optic cabling, some of the world’s most innovative companies are devising ways to make internet connectivity simpler, easier, cost-effective, and of course, more accessible. Such ambitions have led them to the skies. 

Altaeros, a SoftBank-backed startup, is perhaps one of the most prominent players on the quest to float internet access in thin air, with the hopes of bringing people in far-flung ruralities online. 

Altaeros’ proposition is [technical but] straightforward: sending blimps up away, floating at around 244 to 259 meters (or 800 to 850 feet). Known as SuperTower internet blimps, the startup’s product can cover 10,000 sq.km. of space, equivalent to how much 20 to 30 erected towers can handle.

A SuperTower can be installed faster and with less costs, fully autonomous and can fly at altitudes beyond the coverage capabilities of conventional cell towers. 

As such, its multiple in-and-out wireless signals, following a line-of-site, can easily reach and connect more people. It is an interesting idea, one which seemingly imitates the premises of Alphabet’s Project Loon, which is known to have first brought emergency cell sites to 200,000 Puerto Ricans after the Hurricane Maria havoc, then parts of rural Kenya.

While Altaeros deploys its systems in the United States, World Mobile—a United Kingdom-based company—is looking to unveil an airborne hybrid network comprising independent stations in Africa. 

The mission? Using some blimp-like tethered balloons to provide consistent internet coverage to the unconnected. To this end, World Mobile, which billed as the first mobile network to be built on the blockchain and run by the people, is betting on autonomous aerostats.

Last December, World Mobile announced a partnership with [who?] Altaeros to help bring connectivity to those in most need of it. Through the collaboration, low-altitude aerostats—more or less tethered balloon stations—will be deployed, with each capable of covering some 8,000 sq.km. World Mobile has a grand plan to deploy these balloons across Africa, home to the world’s most underserved connectivity market. 

Airships, as they are sometimes called, are undergoing testing in the skies above Zanzibar and Pemba, two often toured Tanzanian islands off the East African coast.

At the moment, a pair of helium-powered balloons is generating just about enough internet access for browsing and digital mail services. The goal is anchoring this network to deliver high-speed connection to almost 100 percent of both islands. 

Altaeros has seen success with launching its SuperTower model, so there is much reason to believe its alliance with World Mobile will yield positive results. If the pilot is successful in Tanzania—where only 20 percent of the populace are connected to the web—it will be interesting to see how the technology makes a viable case for still-developing markets. 

Recently, the World Bank surveyed over 20 low-and-middle-income economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and discovered that no less than 70 percent of people residing in these regions have no understanding of the internet and [as such] do not know how to use it. Alas, a digital divide putting the small and medium-sized businesses driving half of emerging markets’ GDP at a needlessly colossal disadvantage. 

Apparently, neither World Mobile nor Altaeros are the first to bring a fly-the-internet play to Africa. 

Apart from Project Loon, which shut down in January 2021 for not making its system’s economics work, Facebook’s Aquila had a welcomed run. However, the drone-based internet delivery project failed and was discontinued in 2018. Project Taara—also under the auspices of Alphabet—has picked up where Loon left off and is making some progress in the faraway Congos

Unlike Project Loon (and even the now-defunct Google Station initially deployed in West Africa and some parts of India), the airships have been designed with a uncommon hybrid land-air model that allows it to rapidly deploy connectivity to highly populated areas, and ultimately lower the cost of coverage solutions. 

As internet expansion is one of the next big things in Africa, investor interest seems on a rapid rise to bring affordable internet to the underserved. Last month, Poa Internet, a low-cost internet service provider, raised USD 28 M from Africa50, an AfDB-backed infrastructure financier. It plans to use the funds to scale in Kenya, then across Africa. 

Meanwhile, data collocation capacity is becoming a hot topic, especially as Oracle has launched its cloud services in South Africa. Elsewhere, Google’s multimillion-dollar 2Africa undersea cable project is still ongoing. 

Featured Image: miro.medium

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