Japan’s SoftBank will help Africa expand internet access across the skies

Japanese tech giant SoftBank has partnered with the Smart Africa Secretariat, an alliance of predominantly African countries, to use non-terrestrial connectivity to extend internet access to underserved areas of the continent.

The Smart Africa Alliance is a partnership between 32 African countries, international organizations and global private sector actors tasked with implementing Africa’s digital agenda.

The group operates under the Smart Africa Manifesto and was created to accelerate Africa’s development through the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and better access to broadband services.

Globally, Africa is home to the second highest number of people, but has the lowest number of internet connections. At the end of 2019, mobile internet adoption on the continent stood at a paltry 26%, according to a GSMA report.

Extending network access and coverage to large parts of the region continues to be a major challenge for governments and the private sector.

Smart Africa aims to double the internet penetration rate to 51% by 2025 and is working on the implementation of the Bulk Capacity Purchase project. This is an investment plan that aims to provide affordable internet connectivity to African citizens through joint large-scale procurement efforts of Smart Africa member countries.

Five African countries have reportedly expressed interest in the project. These include Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco and Rwanda.

The investment will allow Smart Africa to combine a number of existing satellite and high altitude communications approaches to expand broadband access. This is where SoftBank comes in.

A recently announced agreement between the two parties reveals that Softbank plans to deploy its non-terrestrial network (RTN) solutions to reduce internet costs and build affordable internet infrastructure, primarily in the most remote parts of Africa.

Until now, the main channels used for broadband in Africa have been fiber networks and satellite connectivity, both of which are expensive and time consuming. There is now a growing interest in High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) for connectivity as an alternative for underserved areas.

HAPS are launched into the stratosphere, much lower than conventional satellites, to provide broadband connectivity. They are a type of NTN – an umbrella term for any network involving non-terrestrial flying objects. It also includes satellite communication networks, air-ground networks, Drones (Unmanned Aircraft Systems), etc.

SoftBank will use the connectivity services of several companies that provide NTN solutions in its project in Africa.

Providing connectivity from space and the stratosphere has the advantage of not having to deal with the technical problems associated with terrestrial infrastructures. HAPS, for example, could be deployed in remote areas with rugged terrain, underserved areas and low population areas.

However, whether the project can be done affordably is another question due to its costly nature. Nothing was said about how it will be funded in the statement, although it is likely that SoftBank will fund it in part with contributions also from Smart Africa member and partner countries.

The issue of funding is particularly critical as a similar Internet access initiative recently encountered an inability to find a financially viable business model.

Google’s parent company Alphabet ended Loon this year, which sought to deepen broadband connectivity in remote parts of Africa using internet balloons, starting with Kenya.

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