Connecting the unconnected – Woman with son on phone in East African market
Elon Musk and his Starlink internet service are playing an important role in helping Ukrainians stay connected to the internet as the Russian invasion disrupts mainstream services. The Tesla billionaire authorized the delivery of Starlink user terminals to Ukraine in response to a direct plea on Twitter from the Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov.
The initiative is the latest example of the importance of being connected and is incidentally a more edifying use of social media than Elon Musk’s offer to fight Vladimir Putin which has now involved a Chechen leader insulting the Tesla founder and Musk changing his Twitter handle to Elona Musk.
Ukraine, before the horror of the Russian invasion, did not particularly need support but data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows 2.9 billion people worldwide are still offline and do need help connecting.
The vast majority of those people, 96 percent according to the ITU, live in developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Even among the 4.9 billion counted as internet users by the ITU, many hundreds of millions may only get the chance to go online via shared devices or struggle with slow connectivity speeds when they do.
Joshua Setipa, the CEO of the United Nations Technology Bank has a focus on the 47 Lowest Developed Countries (LDCs) and the role that Information, Communications, and Technologies (ICT) must play to help deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). In driving the Bank’s mission Setipa says its focus is, “Where the gaps are in terms of the infrastructure that we need to be able to allow for ICT to fully drive or underpin economic and social development.”
Connecting the unconnected transforms lives with the delivery of vital services such as education and healthcare. It will drive economic growth and importantly support entrepreneurs in building businesses. A transparent, secure, and quality digital financial future for everyone everywhere is often heralded as the holy grail, but can it be delivered?
Satellite-based internet services such as Starlink provide support to land-based internet services, so they still operate even when infrastructure on the ground is ravaged by war or natural disasters. It can reach areas where ground-based infrastructure has yet to be installed. But traditionally it’s had a reputation for weak and slow connections.
SpaceX, which provides the satellites for Starlink, has launched around 2,000 satellites and aims to launch thousands, but so far currently has around 145,000 users in 25 countries.
Facebook’s Aquila, an internet delivery system using high altitude drones, was closed in 2018. Loon, a project that used stratospheric balloons to deliver internet connectivity, and was part of Google parent company Alphabet, ceased operations in January last year.
Loon was used in disaster relief efforts such as the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017 and was trialed commercially in Kenya in 2020, but like Project Aquila it could not make the economics work, demonstrating the need for commercially viable systems. And of course, the tech giants are not telecom operators.
Research from GSMA, estimates transactions on mobile money platforms in sub-Saharan Africa hit $490 billion in 2020. It forecasts $155 billion of economic value added will be generated by mobile technologies and platforms by 2025 with around half of the region’s population, 615 million people, subscribing to mobile phone services.
The GSMA 2021 report says, “As economies recover and restrictions ease, mobile technology will be even more integral to how people live and how businesses operate. It will enable new digital solutions for small and large enterprises and support the growing use of online channels by consumers. Strong investor confidence and consumer interest in digital platforms point to a digital-centric future for Sub-Saharan Africa, with mobile at the center of the creation and consumption of innovative solutions.”
Success stories include M-PESA which is Africa’s most successful mobile money service and the region’s largest fintech platform. It provides more than 51 million customers across seven countries with a safe, secure, and affordable way to send and receive money, top-up airtime, make bill payments, receive salaries, get short-term loans and much more.
Since its launch in Kenya, it has expanded into Tanzania, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Ghana, and Egypt enhancing financial inclusion and empowering entrepreneurs.
M-PESA is clearly a success, but connectivity is still a major challenge as traditional providers struggle to build infrastructure that can connect hard-to-reach areas. As Google noted when they closed down Project Loon, the challenge isn’t connecting these hard-to-reach areas, it’s connecting them in a way that is economically viable and sustainable in the long term.
According to the World Economic Forum, it takes 2 years for traditional mobile networks to turn a profit from connecting areas that are currently offline. For most networks, that’s reason enough not to try.
World Mobile, the first mobile network built on blockchain, has found a way to make connecting the world commercially viable. By using cryptocurrency, World Mobile Token (WMT) to tokenize their network, as well as reducing the initial start-up costs to create a network that’s approximately 12 times cheaper than traditional networks, World Mobile has created a business model based on sharing the rewards among token holders.
The system relies on AirNodes, which are on the ground towers, for populated areas and Aerostats for remote areas. They are connected to the core network through fibre where possible but also through the high-altitude balloons and free space optics which use beams of light to connect AirNodes wirelessly.
The core network is built on AetherNodes which connect to existing systems and World Mobile’s own EarthNodes which can run from anywhere in the world and extract information from encrypted data which is sent to the blockchain. EarthNodes power the sharing economy enabling people to stake their WMT. World Mobile claims its strength is that it’s hybrid, previous attempts were all either balloons or all satellites. By combining the best of others World Mobile believes it will be faster and cheaper.
World Mobile’s sharing economy model allows local businesses in remote areas to earn more than double the average yearly salary while also providing internet coverage to their local area for the first time. Unlike traditional mobile networks, World Mobile is based on the sharing economy, selling affordable network nodes to local business owners so they have the power to connect themselves and others while sharing the rewards.
The WMT is a digital native token on the Cardano network that is issued with the purpose of allowing the participants to provide a service on the network and be rewarded accordingly for it. The primary role of WMT is to incentivize both token holders that want to support the operation of the network by way of delegating their WMT stake to a node operator as well as node operators.
It is built using a novel combination of proven technologies including mesh networking, hybrid spectrum, renewable energy, and blockchain. That combination can vastly reduce capex and lower prices compared to traditional telecom operators. Decentralized networks enable scalable, shared infrastructure, security, transparency, and self-sovereignty. This lowers the practical barriers for people to access connectivity, financial services, and education.
The British company will launch aerostats across Africa starting in Zanzibar in Q3 this year with its aerostats helping to deliver nearly 100 percent network coverage to the main island. Following Zanzibar, it plans to launch in mainland Tanzania and Kenya followed by a roll out across Africa. It is working with the world’s leading aerostat providers Atlas LTA Advanced Technology and Altaeros and each aerostat will eventually connect up to 100,000 subscribers, each with their own blockchain wallet on World Mobile.
In practical terms so far, it has signed a partnership with the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training in Zanzibar to provide free, unlimited internet to schools across the region. It is working with eGovernment Agency Zanzibar (eGAZ), and Input Output Global, the blockchain infrastructure research and engineering company to establish a blockchain academy which will create long-term blockchain solutions and position the region as a leading global blockchain hub.
Power and infrastructure is always a challenge in rural areas and will remain an issue for World Mobile which it has addressed by using alternative spectrums. It also still has to work hard to convince regulators and Governments that blockchain can be used to create a better and more efficient mobile network. And the major issue remains differentiating itself from others who have tried and failed such as Loon. It has to prove it is different.
Micky Watkins, CEO of World Mobile says, “Affordability is central to the increasing adoption of mobile phones but none of it is achievable without connectivity. We want to help create a world where everyone can access affordable connectivity, a world where economic freedom is a truth and a world where people are able to jump on the opportunities that the internet creates.”
Research conducted for World Mobile shows professional investors are forecasting strong growth in the value of Africa’s internet economy with mobile phones central to the expansion. One in four expect the value of Africa’s internet economy to more than double over the next three years from the current estimated $115 billion, and one in four are forecasting dramatic growth in institutional investment in the continent over the next five years.
The investment case hinges on connecting the unconnected, nearly 46 percent predict dramatic growth in connectivity across the continent in the next three years and 95 percent of those questioned said the continent has the highest potential for growth in connectivity which it is estimated could create up to 44 million jobs if 75 percent of Africa had internet access.
More than 77 percent of investors questioned believe African governments will intensify their focus on increasing internet access over the next three years in response to growing demand in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic which has underlined the importance of connectivity.
Connecting the unconnected and closing the digital divide is perhaps one of the single biggest imperatives that will be solved by catalyzing the private and public sector. In the first instance, global business and innovative technology is outpacing any government’s interest or capabilities to address the digital divide, especially in this now geo-politically volatile epoch with new entrants competing to put themselves at the forefront of a new world order, and especially on the African continent.
Closing the digital divide and connecting the billions of marginalized is an exponentially positive contribution to civil society and the first wave of this innovation will be, for the most part, without the support of government, bar the global and local laws which enterprises must abide by.
This connectivity is essential to facilitating increased access to education, health services, developing commerce and transparent trade, and ensuring everyone has the means for independent economic subsistence and greater choice.
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