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Opinion & Analysis

Universal Internet access looming in horizon

The right to Internet or broadband especially to emerging economies cannot be underestimated. FILE PHOTO | NMG
The right to Internet or broadband especially to emerging economies cannot be underestimated. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The telecommunication industry has gone through several transformations over the past ten years as we sought for universal access and affordable connectivity.

It started with sector liberalisation, followed by extensive infrastructure development and then policy interventions.

However, we still have more than 3.7 billion people across the world that have no access to Internet.

The right to Internet or broadband especially to emerging economies cannot be underestimated.

At times it is a matter of life and death. It has enabled millions of people to express their opinions while exercising and enjoying their rights to freedom of expression.

As a former chairman of the Global Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and current a member of the People Cantered Internet, I have seen the difficulties of ensuring Internet for all.

Some countries are working to ensure that Internet is largely available but resource constraints undermine their efforts.

Geographies of some countries make it expensive. For example, more than 80 per cent of Kenya is Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (Asal) and sparsely populated making it difficult to build inclusive telecommunications infrastructure.

One of my biggest problems when I was at the Ministry of Information and Communications was how to affordably provide broadband to ASAL areas of Kenya.

Despite different policy interventions like infrastructure sharing and subsidies on rural spectrum, it was not possible to lower the cost and ensure access and affordability.

Satellite, the only means to provide other communication services, was very expensive and left thousands of ordinary citizens without broadband.

The advent of Project Loon heralds new hope not just for Kenya but several other countries - such as Indonesia - facing a similar dilemma.

Project Loon is a system of balloons carried by winds in the stratosphere that can deliver Internet access to rural, remote and underserved areas down on earth below at speeds similar to today’s 4G LTE networks.

Since the project launched in 2013 they have made marked progress across all aspects of their system.

For example, the improved software algorithms has enhanced navigation accuracy of the balloons such that they can be clustered over specific areas to maximize the time balloons are spending over areas where people need service.

Using fewer balloons and maximizing the time they spend over areas that people receive the benefits means that balloon-powered Internet is operationally and economically viable.

The project has flown more than 26 million kilometres of flight. And as a result of improvements to balloon material and energy efficiency design many of their balloons are staying airborne for over 100 days.

The Project’s record-breaking balloon stayed aloft for 190 days. Project Loon is part of X (formerly Google[x] and with intensified research at Alphabet Innovation Labs, there is every likelihood that more improvements is in the works and with greater hope of realizing universal access to Internet.

Balloons are multiple orders of magnitude less expensive than communications satellites and because they closely work with telecommunication partners, the balloons have the advantage of being able to connect directly to a standard LTE enabled phone without necessarily acquiring any specialised equipment.

Loon is increasingly becoming technology of choice when disaster strikes. When Hurricane Maria pummelled Puerto Rico, first to go was the telecommunications infrastructure but Project Loon in partnership with AT&T were able to restore connectivity.

In Peru, Project Loon was there to deliver basic Internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people in flood-affected zones in partnership with the Peruvian government and Telefonica when floods swept through the country and destroyed infrastructure.

More of this emerging technology can be access on their website with more information at the broader X website. Also, check out their YouTube page, which has numerous videos, including this animation that explains Loon in detail.

As technology improves, countries still have lots of work to do. Many must urgently update their analogue policies and regulations to reflect our digital age.

In fact, I believe it is so important, that the UN should declare that access to broadband a human rights issue and an essential tool for the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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