Balloons are back in the air as a route to rural coverage

Balloons are back in the air as a route to rural coverage

Micky Watkins World Mobile.jpg

Nearly a year after Google’s parent group burst a project to use balloons to deliver mobile coverage in east Africa, another scheme has popped up.

The company behind the latest is a London-based start-up, World Mobile, which says it plans to deploy a balloon-based network in Zanzibar, part of Tanzania.

And the company is in discussion with senior officials in Tanzania and Kenya to roll out similar projects, it said this morning.

Micky Watkins (pictured), CEO of World Mobile, who calls himself “Mr Telecom” on LinkedIn, said: “Zanzibar will become the world’s first smart region powered by World Mobile, connecting businesses, schools and society as a whole.”

In a video posted on Twitter the company’s COO, Alan Omnet, says that it plans to have its “first phase balloon solution by May next year. … The next phase is the high-altitude platforms, [at] 15-20km.”

But the video clearly states that the company has not yet made a decision about the technology. After the 2022 trials there will be “an update on which of the high-altitude platforms we’re going to go with”, says Omnet.

According to company records, World Mobile Group was set up in February 2021 with £100 capital and Watkins and Charles Barnett as the only two directors.

Watkins’s LinkedIn entry says that he founded World Mobile Group in 2018, “employing blockchain technology at the centre of our distributed core ledger” in order to “put the protection, security and sovereignty of our subscriber’s data at the very heart of what we do”. He writes there: “We bypass the cabalistic pricing strategies created to make money from the end-user, putting the power back in the hands of the consumer.”

World Mobile said today that its balloons “will be the first to officially launch in Africa for commercial use, providing a more cost-effective way to provide digital connection to people compared to rolling out legacy internet infrastructure”.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, last year ran a trial of rural mobile coverage in Kenya, under its Loon brand, working with Telkom Kenya. It launched the service in the presence of the country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, but then shut it down in January 2021. Alphabet transferred the patents to Japanese group SoftBank two months ago.

World Mobile says its remotely controlled balloons are powered by solar panels, inflated by helium and tethered to the ground – unlike Loon’s, which were directed by currents in the upper atmosphere. “Once airborne, they act as floating cellular base stations transmitting radio signals to ground stations and personal devices,” said World Mobile.

The company says it plans to have 20 local Wi-Fi nodes “rolled out by January 2022 and 120 sites during the first six months of 2022 including the first aerostat balloon launch”.

Watkins said: “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 internet creates.”

Said Seif Said, director general of Zanzibar’s E-Government Agency, welcomed the promise that the project will allow the introduction of mobile services. “These services are singularly responsible for promoting financial inclusion by allowing the banked and underbanked in Zanzibar to participate fully in the emerging digital economy.”

World Mobile said it has agreements in place with the Zanzibar government to provide connectivity for 300 schools. Zanzibar is an autonomous region of Tanzania, off the coast in the Indian Ocean.

In early November 2021 World Mobile said it had formed a partnership with Zanzibar’s E-Government Agency to create a blockchain hub, partly to support the local fishing economy.



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