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Can Blimps Close the Digital Divide in Africa?

Making connectivity available in the least developed countries of the world is one of the main challenges we face to bridge the digital divide. The fight to reduce it is still going on; research and novel solutions keep being developed.

We learn from the World Economic Forum article “Airships could boost internet coverage” that blockchain-based telecommunications company World Mobile is partnering with balloon manufacturer Altaeros to assess a new technology, through which low-altitude airships provide basic internet coverage to those communities currently lacking it, especially to those living in low- and middle-income countries. If successful, the balloons could be rolled out across Tanzania and twelve other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The blimps will be supported by ground networks and internet coverage will reach thirteen countries in Africa. Hopefully, this system will represent one crucial step towards closing the digital divide and might pave the way to provide internet to other African countries.

Only 10% of households in low-income African countries can be identified as fixed broadband subscribers, whereas other middle-income and high-income countries range between 70 and 90 per cent. It can be questioned how the blimps can remain for a long time in the sky. Over time they will need to refuel, although a blimp can stay aloft for nearly 2 weeks; when it needs refuelling, the users could rely on further airships to stay connected during downtime.

A recent World Bank Survey in more than twenty low-middle income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America shows that near 70% of the population in those regions do not understand, or do not know how to use the internet. This skills gap proves to be a disadvantage especially to those who own small and medium businesses.

The blimps and the subsequent internet availability will serve to encourage previously unconnected people to learn and acquire more skills. Access to the internet means access to information, education, training, networking, and other resources that could help create a brighter future for families, learners, farmers, business owners and anyone interested in widening their digital skills and opportunities.

Farmer Charlie shares the aim to offer internet access to remote areas, particularly those inhabited by smallholder farmers, and to give them opportunities to gain experience and skills with and within their community. Farmer Charlie primarily offers connectivity to help them improve their agricultural and business activities, so that they could be aware of the right time to water their crops, to fertilise them or to monitor any disease by receiving weather and agronomic data. However, internet will be also an asset to exchange information amongst peers, give and receive advice, and create a stronger local farming community, which could empower the small farmers to manage their business better, from growing and harvesting their crops to pricing and selling them, to limiting waste, and processing agricultural produce. Farmer Charlie is eager to play its part in bridging the digital divide and we are looking at the best ways to do it through cost-effective, time-efficient, and adaptable means.

- Kirath Chander

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