Is Internet via Balloons just blue sky thinking?

Recently there has been some speculation that Google is looking into expanding the Internet into rural Africa using balloons.

HAPS are deployed above the range of commercial flights but lower than satellites – allowing for lower latency times and less energy consumption.

Since HAPS would need to be tethered to the ground, thus causing a major hazard for commercial airliners,  I think this is a blue skies idea floated early for PR purposes, or wild speculation on the part of tech journalists.

Getting connectivity to rural areas is going to happen when it becomes commercially and practically possible, as the mobile phone companies have been demonstrating through their actions over the last 15 years building out networks some really challenging locations.  I really don’t believe it will be driven by technical innovation.

Regarding the West African cable – the SAT3 cable has been operational since 2001, landing in several West African countries.  Local circumstances ranging from absence of local network links to corruption and civil war, have limited the usage of this in most cases, meaning the local ISPs and us still use expensive VSAT links to connect to the internet even in countries like Nigeria.  We’re able to get cheap great internet connections in South Africa, Mozambique and surprisingly Zimbabwe via this cable!  It’s the problems that lead to NGOs like us working in those countries that keep our internet connection costs high not a lack of technology.

When I look at the problems we face at Christian Aid right now in connectivity, they really stem from two things.  High bandwidth requirements, and a failure to budget adequately for the real costs of supplying that amount of bandwidth in some locations where we work.   We aren’t able to take an active role in cutting our costs unless we are taking measures to reduce our requirements!

Thinking back to books about rural connectivity from only 10 or 15 years ago NGOs were proud about sending and receiving email over HF radio links!  Our expectations have risen since then, but are we really getting the value from bandwidth hungry tools proportionally to the extra costs we have to spend to use them in remote locations?



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