World Mobile is attempting to do something even Google couldn’t do

World Mobile is attempting to do something even Google couldn’t do

In an attempt to bring mobile internet network to the Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar and Pemba creators hope that this test will not just transform lives there, but probably across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

At the moment only about  20% of Tanzanians use the internet, as per the World Bank. This is quite low, even for sub-Saharan Africa where usage is affected by the lack of internet coverage and worsened by high data costs and low digital literacy. Nevertheless, the change could soon be written in the sky with this experiment.

UK company World Mobile will launch a hybrid network using aerostats — blimp-like tethered balloons that is set to provide near-blanket coverage across the islands.

Two solar-powered, helium-filled balloons will float 300 metres above land and have a broadcast range of around 70 kilometres apiece, using 3G and 4G frequencies to deliver their signal. The balloons can survive winds of up to 150 kilometres per hour and stay airborne for up to 14 days before descending for refilling. In the few hours of downtime, other aerostats will be airborne, ensuring users are never without service, said the company.

The signal from an aerostat — used as a low altitude platform station (LAPS) — is sufficient for tasks like internet browsing and email, says World Mobile. Meanwhile, construction is underway for a network of nodes on the ground, each able to provide WiFi for hundreds of people with speeds sufficient for video streaming and gaming. The network comprising 125 locations is scheduled for completion this year and the first balloon will launch in June.

“Zanzibar represents a really interesting opportunity. It’s approximately one and a half million people on the islands. It’s like a small country,” World Mobile CEO Micky Watkins said. 

World Mobile will be aiming to succeed where larger companies have failed. Facebook’s Project Aquila, an internet delivery system using high altitude drones, was closed in 2018. Loon, which used stratospheric balloons to deliver internet connectivity, and was part of Google parent company Alphabet, folded in January 2021.

Project Aquila and Loon were designed to provide the internet to remote areas using high altitude platform station (HAPS) systems. Loon was used in disaster relief efforts, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017.

Derek Long, head of telecoms and mobile at technology advisory firm Cambridge Consultants, says Loon and Facebook didn’t succeed because they could not make the economics of their systems work, among other factors. However, he says, “a hybrid model can be fine-tuned to overcome this by providing high-capacity terrestrial solutions in highly populated areas and lower cost coverage solutions with non-terrestrial platforms.”

Long says that though the novelty of aerostats “may in itself generate some resistance to market acceptance,” a hybrid land-air model, if “integrated seamlessly,” could be the “best solution for the challenge at hand.”

World Mobile is also conducting experiments with HAPS technology, but is not waiting on it before rolling out its aerostats and ground WiFi network. “It would be silly to spend three to four years researching (and) developing the full network solution without deploying what we know we can deploy now,” said Watkins.

Sara Ballan, senior digital development specialist at the World Bank, says in Tanzania, connectivity has an economic impact at a personal and national level.

“For a farmer, connectivity can open access to weather information, market prices and easier payment flows. For the economy, digital transformation is a driver of growth, innovation, job creation, and access to services. Unlocking this potential is important for society at large, but especially for the growing youth population seeking jobs and opportunities,” she explained. 

World Mobile recently raised $40 million (AED146 m) for the development of software and initial deployment of its network, says the CEO. The company owns the network and operating license in Zanzibar but Watkins says he hopes members of the public will eventually be able to buy up 70% of the WiFi nodes, running and maintaining the network’s node infrastructure and earning revenue from it.

It’s an unusual business model, said Long, in a market categorized by a small number of large multinational operations.

“If World Mobile can succeed in such a market, in which there are already several large incumbents, then this bodes well for the future,” Long offered.

In addition to World Mobile’s operating licenses in Zanzibar and Tanzania, Watkins expects a license to follow in Kenya early this year, adding the company has earmarked another 18 countries for its system. Entering a crucial year for the company, Watkins is bullish about World Mobile’s prospects.

“We get the sharing economy right in Zanzibar, we prove that at scale in Kenya and Tanzania, and then the rest of the world is ours,” he said.

Source: Agencies


Vismay Anand

An avid reader who enjoys a good bite and a good binge of TV shows at any given time. She is here to tell you stories just as they happened.

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