(CNN) — The islands of Zanzibar and Pemba in Tanzania are about to become a test site for a mobile internet network that its creators hope will revolutionize life not only there, but possibly throughout sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.
According to the World Bank, only one 20% of Tanzanians use the Internet. This figure is low, even for sub-Saharan Africa, where usage is affected by limited Internet coverage and exacerbated by high data costs and low digital literacy. However, the change could come soon.
British company World Mobile will launch a hybrid network using hot air balloons, blimp-like balloons that it says will provide almost total coverage on the islands.
Two balloons filled with helium and powered by solar energy will float 300 meters high and have a transmission range of about 70 kilometers each, using 3G and 4G frequencies to broadcast their signal. The balloons can survive winds of up to 150 kilometers per hour and stay aloft for up to 14 days before coming down for refilling. In the few hours of inactivity, other hot air balloons will be deployed, thus ensuring that users are never left without service, says the company.
The signal from a hot air balloon, used as a low-altitude platform station (LAPS), is enough for tasks like surfing the Internet and checking email, says World Mobile. Meanwhile, a network of nodes is being built on the ground, each one capable of providing WiFi to hundreds of people with speeds sufficient for streaming video and gaming. The network, with 125 locations, is scheduled to be completed this year and the first balloon to be launched in June.
“Zanzibar represents a really exciting opportunity,” Micky Watkins, CEO of World Mobile, told CNN. “There are about a million and a half people on the islands. It’s like a small country.”
where others have failed
World Mobile aspires to succeed where larger companies have failed. Facebook’s Aquila project, a high-altitude drone internet delivery system, closed in 2018. Loon, which used stratospheric balloons to deliver internet connectivity and was part of Google’s parent company Alphabet, he retired in January 2021.
The Aquila and Loon project were designed to provide Internet to remote areas using High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) systems. Loon was used in disaster relief efforts, including after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 (Loon partnered with CNN’s parent company AT&T) and also was commercially tested in Kenya in 2020.
Derek Long, head of telecoms and mobile at technology advisory firm Cambridge Consultants, says Loon and Facebook were unsuccessful because they couldn’t get their systems economics to work, among other factors. However, he says, “a hybrid model can be fine-tuned to overcome this by offering high-capacity terrestrial solutions in highly populated areas and lower-cost coverage solutions with non-terrestrial platforms.”
Long says that while the novelty of hot air balloons “may in itself generate some resistance to market acceptance”, a ground-air hybrid model, if “integrated seamlessly”, could be the “best solution for the challenge in question.
World Mobile is also carrying out experiments with HAPS technology, but will not wait for the results, deploying its hot air balloons and terrestrial WiFi network first. “It would be foolish to spend three or four years researching (and) developing the entire network solution without deploying what we know we can deploy now,” says Watkins.
The value of connectivity
Sara Ballan, Senior Digital Development Specialist at the World Bank, says that in Tanzania, connectivity has an economic impact at the personal and national levels.
“For a farmer, connectivity can open access to weather information, market prices and facilitate payment flows. For the economy, digital transformation is a driver of growth, innovation, job creation and access to services. “, Explain. “Unleashing this potential is important for society in general, but especially for the growing youth population seeking employment and opportunity.”
Ballan points out that connectivity is only part of the solution: “We are optimistic that, in a few years’ time, innovations (in telecommunications) will close significant gaps in connectivity (in sub-Saharan Africa)… However , affordability remains a key issue, and innovative business models to connect poor populations will continue to be needed.”
The cost of network deployment in Zanzibar is many times less than legacy infrastructure, says Watkins, and World Mobile aims to provide connectivity for half the price of existing operators.
World Mobile recently raised $40 million for software development and initial network deployment, says the CEO. The company is the owner of the network and the license to use it in Zanzibar, but Watkins says that he hopes that citizens will be able to buy 70% of the WiFi nodes, to manage and maintain the infrastructure of network nodes and to obtain income from her.
It’s an unusual business model, says Long, in a market categorized by a small number of large multinational operations.
“If World Mobile can succeed in such a market, where there are already several large incumbents, it bodes well for the future,” says Long.
In addition to World Mobile’s operating licenses in Zanzibar and Tanzania, Watkins expects a license to operate in Kenya early this year, adding that the company has reserved 18 other countries for its system. Entering a pivotal year for the company, Watkins is optimistic about World Mobile’s prospects.
“If we can get the sharing economy to work well in Zanzibar, we will demonstrate it on a large scale in Kenya and Tanzania, and then the rest of the world will be ours,” he says.