Internet airships are coming to Zanzibar. But can World Mobile succeed where Google has failed?

UK-based company Mobile Mobile is launching a hybrid network using balloons – blimp-like bound balloons it says will provide near-cover coverage across the islands.

Two solar-powered, helium balloons will float 300 meters (984 feet) above the ground and have a broadcast range of about 70 kilometers (44 miles) each, using 3G and 4G frequencies to deliver their signal. The balloons can survive winds of up to 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour) and stay in the air for up to 14 days before descending for refilling. In the few hours of downtime, other balloons will be airborne, ensuring users are never without service, the company says.

The balloon signal – used as a low-altitude platform (LAPS) – is sufficient for tasks such as Internet browsing and email, says World Mobile. Meanwhile, construction is underway for a network of nodes on the ground, each capable of providing WiFi for hundreds of people with speeds sufficient for video streaming and gaming. The 125-seat network is scheduled for completion this year and the first balloon will be launched in June.

Workers are installing a World Mobile node as it builds its ground-to-air network.

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

Where others have failed

World Mobile aims to succeed where larger companies have failed. Facebook’s Aquila Project, an online delivery system using high-altitude drones, was shut down in 2018. Loon, which used stratospheric balloons to deliver internet connectivity, and was part of Google’s parent company Alphabet, folded in January 2021.
Project Aquila and Loon were designed to provide the Internet to remote areas using elevated platform stations (HAPS) systems. Loon was used in disaster relief efforts, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017 (Loon partnered with CNN cover company AT&T to do so) and was also tested commercially in Kenya most recently as 2020.
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Derek Long, head of telecommunications and mobile phone at technology consulting firm Cambridge Consultants, says Loon and Facebook have failed because they have been unable to run the economy of their systems, among other factors. However, he says, “a hybrid model can be 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 although the novelty of balloons “may in itself generate some resistance to market acceptance,” a hybrid ground-to-air model, if “integrated seamlessly,” could be the “best solution to the challenge at hand.”

World Mobile is also experimenting with HAPS technology, but is not waiting for it before launching its balloons and terrestrial WiFi network. “It would be stupid to spend three to four years researching (and) developing the full web solution without deploying what we know we can deploy right now,” says Watkins.

Aerostat designer Altaeros has partnered with World Mobile to supply the balloons used to deliver part of its network in Zanzibar.

The value of connectivity

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

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

Ballan notes that connectivity is only part of the solution: “We are optimistic that within a few years, (telecommunications) innovations will fill major connectivity gaps (in sub-Saharan Africa) … Affordability is still a key issue, and innovative business models will continue necessary to link poor populations. “

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Watkins claims that the cost of the network in Zanzibar is much cheaper than legacy infrastructure, and World Mobile aims to provide connectivity for half the price of existing operators.

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

It is an unusual business model, says Long, in a market categorized by a small number of large transnational 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 proposes.

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

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

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