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Technology

Riding on balloons to spread internet access

An artistic impression of Google Project Loon
An artistic impression of Google Project Loon. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Kenya looks to bolster its profile as a technology hub in the region following the launch last week of the world's first commercial 4G internet project targeting rural areas.

The project which uses balloons to spread access to affordable and fast internet, seeks to take the benefits of technology beyond cities and urban centres.

The Loon programme is a partnership between Telkom Kenya and Google parent company, Alphabet.

According to the 1GB Basket Statistics Report released last January by technology think tank, Research ICT Africa, Kenya is seventh in Africa with 1GB of data costing an average of Sh244 daily when all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are taken into account.

Tanzania, which is third on the continent in offering affordable connectivity to citizens at Sh218, has a slower internet speed and penetration than Kenya. However, Tanzania is not part of the new internet project, giving Kenya an opportunity to be undisputed leader in internet access.

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Telkom's chief technology and information officer John Barorot told Digital Business that the balloons, which are controlled from Mountain View in California, US, using Machine Learning algorithms, will automatically stop sending signals once they cross the Kenyan border into Tanzania.

“The 35 balloons will send stray internet to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as their governments allowed us, but once they cross from Kenya to Tanzania the signal will be automatically switched off. This has been enabled by Artificial Intelligence,” he said.

Uganda has been imposing social media tax, a policy seen to be chasing away potential investors in the digital economy front, which is gradually gaining momentum on the continent, with stable internet being a paramount business enabler.

The World Bank Digital Report of 2019 places Kenya second after Madagascar in Africa in internet speed index at 10mbs per second, and that is seen as another factor to Kenya's appropriateness for fast internet project.

VILLAGE BUSINESS

Other countries in Africa either have their telcos charging expensively for internet connection or have very minimal 4G smartphone penetration that inhibits Loons efforts to measure the impact of the connection on people's lives. Also, these countries fall on the bottom half of the sub-Saharan ease of doing business index, where Kenya is third after Rwanda and Mauritius.

“I feel proud for Kenya to be selected to lead the way to ensuring total inclusion for internet access. I appreciate the initiative by Telkom since it now means more businesses can be conducted online in remote villages,” said Mercy Wanjau, acting director general of the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA).

Loon said it aims to offer a third layer of connectivity to help get more people in rural zones connected to the internet worldwide.

"This is the culmination of years of work and collaboration between Loon, Telkom, and the Kenyan government," said Loon's chief executive officer, Alastair Westgarth, expressing his delight in ushering Africa's first application of the technology.

Eddy Njoroge, Telkom's board chair said Silicon Savannah had “marked a moment in history” where higher connectivity will be key to emerging stronger from the economic contraction cause by Covid-19.

"In the ‘new normal’, schools are closed and only the well-off families can afford e-learning programmes. This launch is a big step to enable several rural schools to access digital education and keep learners in class," he said.

Successfully taking internet to rural areas is, however, fraught with challenges. ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru said there are still hurdles to Kenya's plan to take the internet to the villages due to the high price of smartphones.

"We will be working with the CA for a way to lower the cost of devices. The aim is to have as many Kenyans as possible accessing the internet via their smartphones," he said.

Experts says the fact that African nations are growing at different speeds is immensely inimical to the continent's quest to adopt emerging technologies on a massive scale and grab a slice of the global digital economy.

Stefan Dercon, professor of economic policy at Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, says Africa should avoid being left behind in Industry 4.0 as it happened in the Third Industrial Revolution of the 1990s.

CORRUPTION HURDLE

"Now is a moment in history where every developing country has an equal chance to mould its digital future. Governments must show political commitment in delivering transformational plans. The right policy choices must be made," he observed.

He added that developing countries should find ingenious ways to address the challenges they face such as low internet penetration and forge ahead in building their economies around digital solutions.

"Every country has stumbling blocks, for instance corruption. You must see beyond these hurdles. The wait-and-see mentality will be costly in ten years' time," he warns African leaders who are still rigid in creating an enabling environment for technological advancement.

The global Artificial Intelligence (AI) sector is estimated to be worth over Sh16 trillion and this will be split between the United States and China who control 70 percent of it.

"Of the remaining 30 percent, the African bloc should strive at getting at least 10 percent. Let us create our own version of Silicon Valley, our own platforms whilst including everyone," said Strive Masiyiwa, a London-based Zimbabwean billionaire and founder of technology and energy group Econet.

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