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As Google’s balloon burst, off-grid solutions are the only way to connect SSA to the internet

Yariv Cohen, Ignite Partner. Published in The New Times

In the past decade, as companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google grew to be global roaming giants, new divisions and operations were added to their core activities, aiming to leverage their vast funds for innovative discoveries and new business models. Uber and Tesla invested billions of dollars in autonomous vehicles, Facebook is developing VR technology, and Amazon became a leading supplier of cloud services alongside its retail business.

But when talking about innovation, the best example out there is Google, which took the world by storm with its web searching service, and since then has developed countless meaningful technologies including the Android operating system, Gmail, navigation systems, image storing, and more.

Google invests funds and efforts into every day, somewhat “boring” solutions, but there is another dimension to the company’s activities. Google X, launched in 2010, is a semi-secret research and development organization, that was established as a “moonshot factory”, with the goal of developing the most out-of-the-box, crazy ideas. In 2013 The organization, now known as only “X”, launched project Loon, one of its most adventurous ventures to date, intending to provide internet access to people everywhere, no matter how remote.

Imagine a shiny, tennis-court-sized balloon, providing internet access to the most remote communities in the world. Sounds a bit kooky, right? But Loon somehow made it seem possible. The project presented a network of balloons traveling through the stratosphere, approximately 20 km above the Earth's surface, with AI technology determining their route according to wind currents. The balloons were made from sheets of polyethylene plastic, 15 meters wide and 12 meters tall when inflated, and they harnessed power from table-sized solar panels.

The project was well funded by global investors and was seemingly reaching new heights, until last week, when Alphabet, Google’s parent company, announced it was shutting it down, citing the lack of a "long-term, sustainable business" as the main cause.

For over 650 million people across Africa, this was bad news, although they were probably not able to read or hear about it. As 60% of the global population has access to the internet, the remaining 40%, some 3 billion people, reside in Southeast Asia, the Amazon, and Africa.

A vast improvement, far from sufficient

In the early 2000s, while the internet was already changing and transforming lives in the western hemisphere, Sub-Saharan Africa was left unpenetrated. As is the case with other utilities including electricity and water, the lack of proper infrastructure was, and still is, preventing the continent from adopting the new technology.

In the past decade connectivity across Africa has improved, mostly due to mobile and smart-phone penetration. In 2010 only 4.85% of Africa’s population had internet access, and now 43% do. But even with the vast progress made, over 650 million people are still disconnected, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The importance of internet access to human development has been iterated in multiple studies, and the meaningful role for developing communities is vast. The Internet provides access to modern economy practices, leading even the most impoverished people to credit for small and micro-enterprises, savings facilities, insurance, and pensions, all leading to higher life quality and multiple opportunities for development. Microloans are essential to small businesses, as an interesting case study in India showed, businesses that received microloans were twice as profitable as those that didn’t.

Education is another important sector disrupted by the internet, as it provides access in the most remote communities where children would probably remain at home or go to work at a young age, and is crucial in closing the growing gap between urban and rural populations.

Small-holder farmers, who are more than 60% of Africa’s population, and are responsible for 26% of the continent’s GDP, could also greatly benefit from internet access. Through IoT systems and various sensors, farmers can easily access important information such as humidity, temperature, and terrain topography. This is known as precision agriculture and has led to the development of unique insurance possibilities, allowing farmers in the developing world to purchase insurance that automatically transfers them mobile payments if their local weather stations record extreme weather.

Healthcare in the region is also disrupted by internet access, as it provides local medical teams with remote support from global experts, assisting patients in the most rural areas to get the proper diagnostics and care.

As Africa’s population grows and becomes increasingly younger, the importance of internet access becomes even greater. “The digital agenda is first and foremost a growth and jobs agenda,” says Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s Vice President for Infrastructure. “The working-age population in Africa is expected to increase by some 450 million people between 2015 and 2035. If current trends continue, less than one quarter will find stable jobs. Broadening internet access means creating millions of job opportunities.”

Internet access may not be a life necessity, but it is as crucial for human development as clean water, electricity, or education. And as the global agenda pushes far beyond the termination of poverty or hunger, the internet is an essential factor in establishing equal opportunities.

An off-grid state of mind is the only way to go

When looking towards the UN’s 2030 agenda of global inclusiveness, the challenge is substantial. The World Bank estimates that $100 million will be needed to connect 550 million Africans to broadband internet, while more innovative solutions are needed for the 100 million Africans living in the most last-mile areas. As with various other infrastructure projects along the continent, private sector engagement is crucial in reaching full access.

Companies are partnering up with governmental and corporate bodies, working on various infrastructure aspects, hoping to connect hundreds of millions while building a sustainable business on the way. Facebook has partnered with African and global telecommunication operators to build the prominent 2Africa, a 37,000 kilometers long subsea cable, aiming to provide nearly three times the total network capacity of all the subsea cables serving Africa today. Google is working on Equino, a private subsea cable that will run from Portugal to South Africa, aiming to connect the countries along Africa’s western coast. Private-public partnerships are another common way of establishing access. Botswana’s government launched a “Fibre to Home” initiative, with 11 private companies working in coordination with the government to build and maintain the fiber network. Rwanda partnered with GSMA to further increase mobile broadband penetration in the country.

But as with other infrastructure sectors such as water and electricity, rural, remote areas do not get to benefit from grid solution, and hundreds of millions are left behind. If a giant balloon is no longer relevant, other solutions are needed. Ignite is providing its customers with off-grid connectivity solutions that can connect anyone anywhere, no matter how remote. Earlier last year, the company began a collaboration with Spacecom, an international satellite services supplier. This cooperation allows the companies to provide a solar-based satellite connection that provides an off-grid, self-sufficient solution, providing anyone with fast, affordable access.

Global, national, and private initiatives have improved Africa’s connectivity immensely in the past decade, establishing much-needed opportunities for education, socialization, and employment, however, the road is still long. Cooperation, collaboration, and an off-grid state of mind are essential in reaching inclusive access in the next decade. It is time to connect Africa, one innovative project at a time.

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