Weather balloons may soon provide the first affordable broadband Internet access to the one-billion-strong African mass market.
Accountant Timothy Anyasi and petroleum engineer Collins Nwani, both Nigerian-born serial entrepreneurs based in the U.S., have secured exclusive rights to market a type of near-space technology -- developed by American telecommunications company Space Data -- throughout the African continent.
Anyasi and Nwani decided to move ahead with their marketing plans after Space Data secured a contract with the United States military in 2007 to field-test the technology in Iraq and Afghanistan. The partners will operate through a consortium that is now in the formation stages, which they call Spaceloon.
The technology raises hydrogen-filled weather balloons, serving in effect as satellite substitutes, to an altitude between 80,000 and 100,000 feet. As individual users contact the balloons via modem, the balloons bridge them to a nearby Earth-bound network operations center (NOC), which in turn connects to various Internet gateways.
“Network operation centers are located close to a fiber optic cable -- say, in Lagos or Accra -- and a signal is sent back and forth to the [balloon] in near space,” Anyasi says.
By tapping into countries with fiber optic technology, Spaceloon intends to buy cheap access in the oceanfront capital cities of Africa for resale wirelessly to the interior.
Spaceloon will concentrate its initial efforts in four countries, which run roughly east to west on a similar latitude -- from westernmost Sierra Leone to Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria. The company is seeking subsidies from the governments to prove the concept, followed by plans for a massive rollout as soon as possible.
Transmission speed will depend on the customer’s line of sight and the amount of bandwidth purchased, though Anyasi says download speeds should match or exceed those of satellite Internet solutions. Corporate customers, for example, can pay for a dedicated daily balloon that will deliver speeds up to 10 Mbit/s. Families, on the other hand, could opt for a budget-friendly plan of about 300 kbit/s. That's not super fast, but it would be the first affordable option ever available to some African residents.
Anyasi says bandwidth can be extended: “In busy times, we can simply send up more balloons.”
The balloons come down every 24 hours due to the limitations of battery life -- and to keep them from floating into territories that don’t subscribe to the service. “You’re looking at a wide geographic area -- there’s a wide jet stream at near space -- and that allows balloons to keep on floating without stop,” Anyasi explains. “It’s cheap to bring them down, as balloons cost only about $50, and since they are equipped with a GPS, it is easy to locate them and reuse them.”
Spaceloon will be the first ISP option available to the African mass market (outside the largest cities) without huge up-front costs. Currently, customers wishing fixed-line Internet access must either purchase a VSAT for as much as $10,000 or procure a personal wireless tower and roof-mounted dish for about $1,000.
Spaceloon customers would need only buy a locally made satellite dish for about $10, a regular modem, and connection to the service. Monthly pricing will be at least half the cost of all current options, according to Anyasi.
The impact on Africa’s Internet industry could be enormous.
Besides providing Internet access to previously unserved markets in city outskirts and rural regions, the technology would allow mobile phone operators to offer wireless modems to their customers. (Currently there are about 320 million mobile phone users in Africa.) To this end, Spaceloon is in discussions with large wireless providers Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN) and Vodafone, which each have a large business presence in a number of African countries.
The concept is simple, but the implications are massive. As Anyasi says, “Anyone, anywhere can get [wireless] Internet access. All you need is access to the sky and you have reception.”
— Deborah Nason is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.