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Loon’s Balloons Punctured Raises questions of how to bridge the digital divide

Last year we reported that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had launched over 30 balloons to provide internet connection to over 35,000 sq miles of Kenya. However, Alphabet has now announced that due to technical and political challenges it is shutting down its Internet balloon business, Loon. Founded in 2011, Loon aimed to bring connectivity to areas of the world where building cell towers is too expensive by using balloons to float solar-powered networking gear high above the Earth. But identifying the wireless carriers to use Loon has proved difficult. Kenya Telcom was the biggest client. One issues has been the longevity of the balloons – they need to be brought back to earth every 5 months which adds greatly to their operating costs. The end of this project raises questions on how to fund internet access in Africa.

A new report by the Broadband for All Working Group estimates that governments, the telecoms industry, investors, multilateral institutions, and development finance partners will need to invest over $100 bn in order to provide universal internet coverage across Africa by 2030. The African Development Bank on the other hand estimates that the continent will need investment of between $130 bn and $170 bn every year to achieve widespread internet access. Fortunately, thanks to the rapid recent development of telecom technology, masts can now be positioned virtually in any location. Several mobile companies are working on expanding network coverage in Africa, particularly in remote regions. Much of the recent investment in telecom infrastructure across the continent has come from China — in fact, direct investment from China in this sector has increased by 40% every year over the past 10 years.

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Alastair Tempest

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