World Mobile is launching tethered balloons as part of a network providing internet coverage to two Tanzanian islands.

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

British company World Mobile is launching a hybrid network that uses aerostats – hot air balloon-like tethered balloons that it says will provide near-blanket coverage over the islands.

Two solar-powered, helium-filled balloons will float 300 meters (984 feet) above land and have a transmission range of approximately 70 kilometers (44 miles) each, using 3G and 4G frequencies to deliver their signal. to give. The balloons can withstand wind speeds of up to 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour) and can stay in the air for up to 14 days before descending to be refilled. In the few hours of shutdown, other aerostats will be in the air, ensuring users are never without service, the company says.

An aerostat’s signal — used as a low-altitude platform station (LAPS) — is sufficient for tasks like surfing the web and emailing, World Mobile says. Meanwhile, a network of nodes on the ground is under construction, each capable of providing Wi-Fi to hundreds of people at speeds sufficient for video streaming and gaming. The network of 125 sites is due to be completed this year and the first balloon will be launched in June.

Workers install a World Mobile node as it builds its land-air network.

“Zanzibar presents a very interesting opportunity,” World Mobile CEO Micky Watkins told CNN. “There are about one and a half million people living 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 Project Aquila, an internet delivery system that uses high-altitude drones, was shut down in 2018. Loon, which used stratospheric balloons to provide internet connectivity, and was part of Google parent company Alphabet, folded in January 2021
Project Aquila and Loon are designed to provide internet to remote areas using HAPS (High Height Platform Station) systems. Loon was used in disaster relief, including in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017 (Loon partnered with CNN parent company AT&T) and was also commercially tested in Kenya only in 2020.
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Derek Long, head of telecoms and mobile at technology consultancy Cambridge Consultants, says Loon and Facebook failed, partly because they couldn’t run the economics of their systems. However, he says, “a hybrid model can be refined to overcome this by providing high-capacity terrestrial solutions in densely populated areas and lower-cost coverage solutions with non-terrestrial platforms.”

Long says that while the novelty of aerostats “may in itself generate some resistance to market adoption,” a hybrid land-air model, if “seamlessly integrated,” could be the “best solution to the challenge.”

World Mobile is also experimenting with HAPS technology, but doesn’t wait for it to roll out its aerostats and Wi-Fi network on the ground. “It would be foolish to spend three to four years researching (and) developing the entire network solution without implementing what we know we can implement now,” Watkins said.

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

The value of connectivity

Sara Ballan, senior digital development specialist at the World Bank, says in Tanzania that 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 payment flows. For the economy, digital transformation is an engine of growth, innovation, job creation and access to services,” she explains. “Unlocking this potential is important for society as a whole, but especially for the growing youth population seeking jobs and opportunities.”

Ballan notes that connectivity is only part of the solution: “We are optimistic that (telecommunications) innovations will fill important connectivity gaps within a few years (in Sub-Saharan Africa) … However, affordability is still an important problem, and innovative business models will continue to be needed to connect poor populations.”

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

World Mobile recently raised $40 million for software development and the first deployment of its network, the CEO said. The company owns the network and the operating license in Zanzibar, but Watkins says it hopes the public will eventually be able to purchase 70% of the Wi-Fi nodes, operate and maintain the network’s node infrastructure and monetize it.

It’s an unusual business model, Long says, in a market categorized by a small number of large multinational operations.

“If World Mobile can succeed in such a market, which already has a number of large incumbents, that bodes well for the future,” Long offers.

In addition to World Mobile’s operating licenses in Zanzibar and Tanzania, Watkins expects a license in Kenya early this year, adding that the company has reserved an additional 18 countries for its system. Watkins is entering a pivotal year for the company and is optimistic about World Mobile’s prospects.

“We’re getting the sharing economy right in Zanzibar, we’re proving that on a massive scale in Kenya and Tanzania, and then the rest of the world is ours,” he says.

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