The race is on to get Africa online

Brid-Aine Parnell

Thursday 8 December 2016

The race is on to connect the remaining two-thirds of the planet to the internet, and the stakes are so high, even private firms are getting in on the action.

SpaceX is promising satellites, Google has its Project Loon and is a collaboration between Facebook, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung. All of these projects have the same aim – to provide internet access to people in the most remote areas of Africa.

But while that sounds like a laudable goal, the benefits for those hooked up to the web are a happy side effect. These companies are interested in expanding their customer bases as the densely connected Western world reaches saturation.

Connecting Africa

In Africa, a billion people could gain access to internet facilities – fresh eyes and ears to boost the advertising revenues of Google and Facebook and buy the connected products of Ericsson and Samsung.

Their motives might not be entirely pure, but one thing is becoming increasingly clear – the world is not going to get online without help from private companies.

Even in the developed world, people who are ostensibly online in remote areas are being left behind by slow speeds that make it impossible to access many services or run a business.

As of June 2016, just under 341 million people in Africa are using the internet, mostly on their mobile phones, out of a population of over a billion people. But the vast continent is virtually impossible to connect up through a wired network, it will take drones, space satellites and other clever innovations to up the internet coverage.

Stellar initiatives

Google thinks its Project Loon can help. Started in June 2013, Project Loon uses hot air balloons to beam the internet from the air. It sounds farfetched, but the internet giant has already proved that it can keep balloons in the air for over a hundred days, and one of its balloons circled the globe three times before it came down. The internet speeds offered by Project Loon reach 22MB/sec for ground antennas and 5MB/sec for mobile phones.

Google may also expand the idea to drones, after buying drone firm Titan Aerospace. If Google adds drones and satellites to its arsenal, these could not only beam the internet down, but help the firm with its mapping and imagery businesses as well.

Facebook was next to announce its, a collaboration with other tech firms to spread access. While it’s working on a drone plan, has already started getting people online with its mobile phone app. This allows them to access basic web services like Google Search, Wikipedia and, of course, Facebook, over their mobile network without incurring data charges. The app launched in Africa, first in Zambia and then in Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana.

Finally, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has announced his firm is working on a development project to use low-cost, high performance satellites for a new space-based internet network. The project only kicked off last year and prototype test-flight satellites aren’t expected until 2017. The benefits for SpaceX in developing this technology is that the same satellites could be sold to other firms, potentially even to Google and Facebook.

Access to the internet is becoming a basic service as important as power and water. But with private companies willing to foot the bill, Africa won’t have to wait for its own governments to find the funds for internet networks. In return for a billion customers, the internet will come to them.