Delivering the internet to Africa

More than half the population of Africa cannot access the internet, but this is changing thanks to mobile networks and ambitious new engineering projects. In fact, Africa recorded the highest growth in internet use globally between 2005 and 2018, proving that it’s possible to close the digital divide.

“The working-age population in Africa is expected to increase by some 450 million people between 2015 and 2035,” says Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s vice president for infrastructure. “If current trends continue, less than one-quarter will find stable jobs. Broadening internet access means creating millions of job opportunities.”

While the number of broadband connections in Africa crossed the 400 million mark in 2018 – which is nearly 20 times 2010 levels – the regional average broadband penetration, including 3G and 4G connection, was only 25 per cent in 2018. In fact, mobile broadband coverage in Africa is still at 70 per cent of the population.

Nearly 1.1 billion new users must be connected to the internet to achieve the World Bank’s aim of achieving universal, affordable quality broadband access by 2030, and it estimates a staggering $100bn (£80bn) is needed to reach this goal.

“This is unquestionably a significant infrastructure undertaking, requiring the deployment of nearly 250,000 new 4G base stations and at least 250,000km of fibre across the region,” according to a Broadband Commission report. It’s not just money making this task difficult. Lack of access to reliable and affordable electricity makes accelerating Africa’s digital transformation journey even more challenging. But the report advocates “rolling out satellites, Wi-Fi-based solutions, and other innovations to reach an estimated population of nearly 100 million that live in remote rural areas that are currently out of reach of traditional cellular mobile networks”.

What are the large-scale high-tech options set to better connect this continent?

Satellites and very small aperture terminal ground stations are commonly used to provide web access, but often result in slower than average speeds and high prices, However, technology is improving.

A new Eutelsat Konnect satellite was successfully launched into geostationary transfer orbit by Arianespace on 16 January 2020. It will provide full or partial coverage for up to 40 countries across Africa and 15 over Europe, working in conjunction with land networks to provide internet access in isolated regions.

Built by Thales Alenia Space, the 3.6-tonne communications satellite is the first satellite to use Thales Alenia Space’s all-electric Spacebus NEO platform, which has been developed under the Neosat Partnership Project conducted by the European Space Agency and France’s National Centre for Space Studies.

The Spacebus Neo platform features a number of innovations, including a modular design for longevity and flexibility, plus the option of very high throughput satellites (VHTS) that will roll out in a couple of years. It’s designed to combine high efficiency and light weight, which will allow satellite operators to benefit from competitive launch conditions.

VHTS systems first appeared in military telecommunications and are useful due to their combined high capacity and digital agility, as they are able to adjust to match the requirements of the coverage zone and evolve to the needs of operators.

To house this type of high-capacity payload, a new propulsion system was needed. The electric propulsion system is the structural backbone of the Spacebus Neo platform and is used to raise the satellite to its operational orbital position and keep it in place during its 15 years of operational lifetime.

Previous generations of telecoms satellites use chemical propulsion to generate thrust by burning a fuel, whereas electric propulsion systems like Konnect’s use xenon, an inert gas, as the propellant fuel. “The electric thrusters work by trapping electrons with a magnetic field to ionise the gas that comes through. Accelerated ions come out that create the thrust and drive. They generate hundreds of milli-newtons instead of several newtons in thrust, but they are very efficient,” says Steven Austin, propulsion product manager at Thales Alenia Space UK.

This type of system makes efficient use of fuel and electrical power to enable modern spacecraft, including satellites, to travel further, faster and more cheaply than any other propulsion technology currently available. “The big advantage over chemical propulsion is that you get 5 to 10 factor on fuel efficiency,” Austin adds.

Konnect’s xenon propulsion system was assembled in Belfast and operates in the electromagnetic spectrum, Ka-band. Konnect is the first commercial satellite and the first with electric thrusters to come out of the new factory, which started life in 2014.

“In my career, it’s the most phenomenal achievement,” Austin enthuses. “We had teams of people working on this for years and the propulsion system was very quickly used post launch. It was nail-biting but very rewarding.”

Konnect will offer a throughput capacity of 75Gbps, and provide high-speed internet access up to 100Mbps for both companies and individuals. Konnect Africa, an initiative of the satellite’s operator, Eutelsat, has launched internet access offers in Côte d’Ivoire, ranging from 5GB to 30GB of data for between 9,000 to 35,000 CFA francs (£12-47), which is the equivalent of 45 to 175 cups of coffee from a local street vendor, according to the Lonely Planet guide.

Further roll-out of services will begin in Benin, Cameroon, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania and Uganda. It’s hoped the satellite connection will enable homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and governments to enjoy the social and economic opportunities that internet connectivity entails, whether they live in cities or remote locations.

Packages inspired by ‘pay as you go’ models and hotspot schemes will be offered at public Wi-Fi terminals so that several users can share online access, which will be marketed as coupons that can be paid for using a mobile phone. First partners will include local operators and telecom companies.

The programme will “shift into a higher gear” in 2022, according to Thales Alenia Space UK, with the roll-out of the Eutelsat Konnect VHTS, which is a larger version of Konnect that can carry a higher capacity of payload and more fuel, but uses the same modular propulsion system.

The search for better connectivity in Africa is also being addressed by Google. The tech giant last year announced plans for a new private subsea cable to connect Africa with Europe. Once complete, the cable, called Equiano, will start in western Europe and run along the west coast of Africa, between Portugal and South Africa, with branching units along the way that can be used to extend connectivity to additional African countries. The first phase of the project, connecting South Africa with Portugal, is expected to be completed in 2021, while the first branch is expected to land in Nigeria.

Equiano is Google’s third private international cable, but the first subsea cable to incorporate optical switching at the fibre-pair level, rather than the traditional approach of wavelength-level switching. This greatly simplifies the allocation of cable capacity, giving the company the flexibility to add and reallocate it in different locations as needed.

Facebook is also helping with the great roll-out. In fact, it’s already joined forces with African companies to share the burden of laying almost 500 miles of fibre-optic cable across remote parts of Uganda and connect some three million people, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook seems to be targeting new users as its growth in the West stalls and is already said to have 131 million monthly active users in sub-Saharan Africa. In Uganda alone, the potential for growth is huge, with almost 20 million people owning a mobile phone. There are concerns, however, that Facebook’s push could undermine net neutrality, but additional cables and building better internet access for local people would bring huge societal and financial benefits.

The social network is rumoured to have grander ambitions and is planning a subsea cable dubbed Simba. However, Facebook told E&T it could not comment on the Wall Street Journal’s report.

If the paper’s source is correct, the Equiano cable ring road could link several countries on Africa’s east, west and Mediterranean coasts to get more people on the digital superhighway, although no precise route was shared. Whether Simba goes ahead or not, the trend for huge tech companies footing the bill for subsea cables seems set to continue.

Other players are joining the connectivity party with giant balloons and drones. Loon, which is part of Alphabet Inc (Google’s parent company), partners with mobile network operators to extend the reach of their LTE services. “Together, we help expand coverage to places that lack it, supplement existing networks, and provide expedient coverage after natural disasters,” it says.

Loon’s polyethylene balloons are the size of a tennis court and can fly 20km up in the stratosphere, where winds can blow at over 100km/h and temperatures can drop as low as -90°C. They contain the most essential components of a cell tower. Solar panels power the system during the day, while charging an onboard battery to allow for night-time operations. Antennas transmit connectivity from ground stations, across a balloon mesh network, and back down to a user’s LTE phone. A user needs nothing more than a standard LTE phone to connect to a Loon balloon.

The beauty of using a balloon to provide internet access is that their navigation systems can be programmed for autonomous travel to remote locations, with operators proving continuous human oversight. “A group of Loon balloons creates a network that provides connectivity to people in a defined area in the same way a group of towers on the ground forms a terrestrial network. The difference is our ‘towers’ are constantly moving with the winds,” the company says.

In July 2020, Loon began to run the world’s first commercial high-speed internet using balloons to villagers in remote regions of Kenya’s Rift Valley together with Alphabet Inc and Telkom Kenya. It’s part of a group of telecoms, tech, aviation and aerospace companies forming the HAPS Alliance (short for high-altitude platform station) focused on eliminating the digital divide. They include Ericsson, Nokia Corporation, Telefónica and Airbus Defence and Space.

“HAPS systems fill a capability gap between satellites and UAVs, being complementary to each other as part of a constantly growing market… Having an aircraft which is flight proven is just the first step; having an ecosystem in which it can operate with common standards will bring us even closer to delivering HAPS services from the stratosphere to unlock potential around the world,” says Dirk Hoke, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space.

While HAPS services will probably not be ready to roll out for quite a few years, due to the complexity of engineering challenges and the need for new regulations, the industry is pulling together as an alliance, giving the technology the best chance of realising its potential as soon as possible.

Airbus is working on an unmanned solar aircraft to fly in the stratosphere at around 70,000ft, with plans for it to deliver HAPS services. There are currently two versions of the Zephyr, which is a satellite drone hybrid. The larger vehicle, Zephyr T, has a wingspan of 33m and weighs 140kg, while Zephyr S has a 25m wingspan and weighs less than 75g, enabling one person to move it.

Rumour has it that Facebook is testing whether the Zephyr S could help it achieve its dream to deliver connectivity using drones (or a drone hybrid), having grounded its Aquila programme in June 2018.

The social network originally devised a solar-powered plane that would beam internet to remote parts of the world and eventually break the record for longest unmanned aircraft flights. “Eventually, our goal is to have a fleet of Aquilas flying together at 60,000ft, communicating with each other with lasers and staying aloft for months at a time – something that’s never been done before,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a 2016 blog post.

A 2017 Facebook blog also said: “We believe that HAPS connectivity is an important enabler of the next generation of broadband infrastructure, making it possible to bring broadband connectivity to rural regions where internet connectivity is lacking or non-existent.”

Facebook also said it was collaborating with Airbus “to advance spectrum and aviation policy and continue to demonstrate the viability of HAPS systems for providing broadband connectivity”, but Airbus told E&T it is unable to comment on specific partners at this time. It was reported in the Australian press that Facebook conducted a drone trial at Kimberley, Western Australia in April 2019, which ended in a crash, but the company declined to comment.

Whether rumours of exotic new aircraft are true or not, if the goal of universal and affordable internet access for everyone in Africa by 2030 is to be achieved, governments, big tech companies and other private businesses and development partners will have to collaborate to connect the continent.

“In short, what is required is a ‘digital Moonshot’ where exceptional and coordinated efforts are made to achieve a seemingly impossible goal,” the Broadband Commission reported.

While companies aren’t aiming for the Moon, satellites and HAPS systems in the sky look set to help make this dream a reality and with so much cooperation in the area, everyone is aiming high.