Home » Internet blimps are coming to Zanzibar. But can World Mobile succeed where Google failed?

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

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The UK company World Mobile is launching a hybrid network using aerostats. This is an airship-like tethered balloon that covers the entire island almost comprehensively.

Two solar-powered helium-filled balloons float 300 meters (984 feet) above land and deliver signals using 3G and 4G frequencies, each with a broadcast range of approximately 70 kilometers (44 miles). Have. The balloon can withstand winds of 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour) and can continue to fly in the air for up to 14 days before descending for replenishment. With a few hours of downtime, other aerostats won’t float in the air and leave users unserviced, the company says.

The signal from the aerostat, used as a low altitude platform station (LAPS), is sufficient for tasks such as internet browsing and email, World Mobile says. Meanwhile, a network of terrestrial nodes is underway, each capable of providing WiFi to hundreds of people at a speed sufficient for video streaming and gaming. A network of 125 locations will be completed this year, with the first balloon being launched in June.

“Zanzibar represents a really interesting opportunity,” World Mobile CEO Mickey Watkins told CNN. “There are about 1.5 million people on the island. It’s like a small country.”

Where others have failed

World Mobile aims to succeed where big companies fail. Facebook’s Project Aquila, an internet distribution system that uses high-altitude drones, was closed in 2018. Loon, who used a stratospheric balloon to deliver internet connections 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 locations using the High-altitude Platform Station (HAPS) system. The runes were used in disaster relief operations, including the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico in 2017 (the runes did so in partnership with CNN’s parent company AT & T). Commercial trial in Kenya Until 2020.
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Derek Long, head of telecom and mobile at technology advisory firm Cambridge Consultants, said Loon and Facebook were unsuccessful because they couldn’t make the economics of the system work. However, “the hybrid model can be fine-tuned to overcome this by providing high-capacity terrestrial solutions in populated areas and low-cost coverage solutions on non-terrestrial platforms,” ​​he said. say.

Long said that the novelty of aerostat “may itself be a resistance to market acceptance”, but when “seamlessly integrated”, the hybrid land-air model is “the best for the challenge at hand.” It says it could be a “solution”.

World Mobile is also experimenting with HAPS technology, but isn’t waiting for it before deploying aerostats and terrestrial WiFi networks. “It’s ridiculous to spend three to four years researching (and) developing a complete network solution without deploying what we know we can deploy today,” says Watkins.

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

The value of connectivity

In Tanzania, connectivity has economic implications at the individual and national levels, said Sarabalan, World Bank’s Senior Digital Development Specialist.

“For farmers, connectivity can open access to weather information, market prices and easier payment flows. For the economy, digital transformation is the driving force for growth, innovation, job creation and access to services. “She explains. “Unleashing this potential is important for society as a whole, but especially for the growing number of young people seeking jobs and opportunities.”

Ballan states that connectivity is only part of the solution. “We are optimistic that (communication) innovation will close the key connectivity gap (in sub-Saharan Africa) within a few years … but affordability remains a key issue. Poor Innovative business models continue to be needed to connect people. “

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Watkins argues that the cost of deploying a network in Zanzibar is many times cheaper than legacy infrastructure, and World Mobile aims to offer connectivity at half the price of existing operators.

World Mobile recently raised $ 40 million for software development and initial network deployment, the CEO said. Although the company owns network and operational licenses in Zanzibar, Watkins says that the general public will eventually buy 70% of WiFi nodes to run and maintain the network’s node infrastructure and generate revenue from it. He says he hopes to be able to get it.

Long says this is a rare business model in a market that is categorized as a small number of large multinationals.

“If World Mobile could succeed in such a market where there are already some large existing companies, this would be a precursor to the future,” Long said.

In addition to World Mobile’s operating licenses in Zanzibar and Tanzania, Watkins expects the license to continue in Kenya earlier this year, adding that the company has assigned an additional 18 countries to the system. Entering an important year for the company, Watkins is bullish on the outlook for World Mobile.

“We are right in the sharing economy in Zanzibar. We will prove it on a large scale in Kenya and Tanzania, and then prove that the rest of the world is ours,” he said. say.

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