China to Launch Internet Satellite Network

rocketChina has announced plans to launch an internet satellite network, putting it in competition with SpaceX, OneWeb, O3b, and other internet satellite contenders.

The Chinese “Hongyun Project” plans to launch 300 satellites into low earth orbit starting in 2018, with the network operational in 2022 and complete by 2025.

Earlier this year China also successfully demonstrated “quantum encryption” communications by satellite, potentially representing an initial step towards a global quantum internet.

Bridge International Academies

bridgeHundreds of millions of children have no school to attend. Hundreds of millions more attend schools with poor facilities, minimal supplies, and frequently absent teachers.

Because of this dire situation, a number of countries are experimenting with international private schools that focus on new technologies, broadband linkages, standardized curriculum, rigorous evaluation, and low cost.

The best known of these is probably Bridge International Academies, whose high profile is partly due to an august list of investors, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Omidyar Network, and World Bank. Bridge currently operates in five countries: Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. Over 100,000 students attend one of more than 500 Bridge schools. Bridge aims to educate 10,000,000 pupils by 2025.

Bridge provides teachers with a tablet that includes all lesson plans in highly scripted formats. Bridge rigorously collects data about teacher and student progress. Administrative cost are kept low due to centralization of many tasks; each school requires just one administrator with a smartphone app. Costs for students depend on region and economic status. In Uganda, for example, parents pay about $66 per year, which is much cheaper than other private schools and roughly on par with “free” public schools that require a number of purchases.

Bridge points to studies which demonstrate that its students out-perform public school children.

Simultaneously, private school networks — and Bridge International Academies in particular — are lightening rods for an exceptionally high level of controversy. Bridge has had periodic conflict with ministries of education, teachers unions, and other organizations with strong opinions about education.

Location Services in Developing Countries

locationWhere am I?

Answering this most basic of questions can represent a major challenge in developing countries. In regions with no maps, no addresses, sometimes no names, it is difficult to know location. And without location, it is impossible to meaningfully engage with the rest of the planet.

New technologies offer powerful solutions regarding location services.

First, and most fundamental, is global mapping. Google Maps, ESRI, and other services offer detailed traditional and satellite view maps. When conventional maps don’t exist in a location, researchers can now easily add them. For example, vaccine researchers at the Gates Foundation  analyzed satellite images for regions not yet immunized — often because of inaccurate maps — in order to build accurate vaccination plans.

Second, new technologies can help define property rights. Over a billion households still live without property rights to their homes that are secure, registered, documented and tradable. These “hidden” rights are economically significant — likely exceeding $10 trillion in value. New registries are helping. The World Bank and others have invested in open cadastre systemsDrone technology can play a role. Even distributed blockchain technologies may become increasingly useful.

Finally, how does one describe their location if no addresses exist? By providing GPS coordinates of two nine digit numbers? A British firm called what3words has a clever solution. They divide the planet into a grid of 3 meters x 3 meters and have assigned each square a unique three word identifier (I’m currently writing, for example, from this beautiful corner of the planet: searching.colonialist.suggested).

Why 5G Won’t Help Poor Regions

5gDeveloping countries often “leapfrog” technologies. Many regions, for example, can skip landlines and go straight to cellular. Many regions can skip the electrical grid and go straight to solar.

Will this “leapfrog” also happen direct to the latest cellular technology, 5G?


Previous standards — 2G, 3G, 4G — all placed equipment on cell towers typically spaced no closer than a mile apart (and often much farther — cellphones can reach towers tens of miles away). Even at this density, however, the economics for building out a network often don’t work for serving rural areas in developing countries (or even in developed countries in many cases).

5G, unlike its predecessors, requires much denser installation of cell stations — around 500 feet apart in urban regions. This is about 100 times denser than previous standards. The benefit is that 5G can be 100 times faster than 4G, connect 100 times as many devices, and be five times quicker to connect.

By the way, placing hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of new cell stations in neighborhoods is unleashing many battles. These are on top of the raging technology battles already underway in defining the 5G standards.

While the poor half of the planet mostly has 2G, is converting to 3G, and aspires to 4G, new 5G standards are poorly suited poor, rural areas. This is another example of the barriers that cellular will have in serving the poorest — and a further reason that alternative connectivity through satellites, balloons, or other means will be necessary.

Fake News is About to Get Way Worse

fakeVideos play a major role in fake news. Online video content can be repurposed from other tragedies to foment outrage (or even from video games). Fake videos can employ actors. In the US, tragedies are often followed by proliferating conspiracy videos.

Unfortunately, the fake video problem is about to get a lot worse.

New tools are allowing individuals to quickly, cheaply, and effectively substitute faces in videos in ways which are extremely believable. The videos, termed “deepfakes”, are popular in specialty communities on Reddit and elsewhere, but are about to become much more mainstream.

Those wishing to sow dissent or chaos now have a new, incredibly powerful tool at their disposal. What happens when an authentic appearing video appears of Donald Trump screaming for a nuclear attack?

Unfortunately, the tools to identify fake videos aren’t keeping up with the technology to produce them. Experts in identifying fakes still need to magnify images frame by frame to analyze shadow patterns, for example.

Educating people about the new technology will be necessary — although unfortunately this will have the side effect of questioning the veracity of all video.

Satellite Broadband Today

sesSatellite broadband providers mostly fall into two categories: firms (such as Iridium) with satellites in geostationary orbit (thus service is expensive and slow), or new entrants (like OneWeb and SpaceX) promising thousands of satellites in low earth orbit (with service that is cheaper and fast — but doesn’t exist yet).

One firm, however, has already already implemented satellite broadband using a small and growing network of medium earth orbit satellites. O3b Networks (now part of SES) currently maintains 12 satellites at altitude of 8,000 km, which is about 1/4 the distance of geosynchronous competitors. This month O3b Networks plans to launch four more satellites from French Guiana aboard a Soyuz rocket from Arianespace. An additional four satellites are scheduled to be launched in 2019.

The network provides backhaul services to mobile providers as mobile 4G subscribers grow from 1.6 to 3.8 billion by 2020. The network also serves multiple niche markets such as emergency response and cruise ships.

The name “O3b” derives from “other three billion” — in reference to those on the planet currently without broadband.

Broadband First Adopters

etTotal broadband coverage of the planet will precede total broadband adoption by a number of years. Prices will need to drop and technologies will need to simplify before everyone is connected.

But total broadband coverage is still extremely significant, because there will always be first adopters that bring considerable benefits to a community even before most people can afford access themselves.

As I travel through developing countries, I see a lot of different categories of first adopters, even in the most resource-poor settings:

  • Aid workers: foreign aid workers invariably maintain internet access, generally through cellular connections that are too expensive for most in the community;
  • Health clinics: even remote clinics can often afford to pay higher costs associate with cell or microwave access;
  • Missionaries: In many regions, the first to arrive with smartphones are missionaries;
  • Peace Corps Volunteers: Over sixty countries host Peace Corps volunteers, many in extremely remote regions;
  • Tourists: Even remote eco-lodges these days figure out how to provide wifi to guests;
  • (And my favorite) Surfers: With their maniacal obsession for finding the next great wave, combined with their need to stay in touch, surfers support the arrival of wifi to even the most distant surf camps.

Financial Services in Developing Countries

mpesaAround two billion people on the planet are “unbanked” — which is to say they have no access to financial services. Their transactions are all in cash. Any savings need to be hidden in their home. They are vulnerable to crime. They can’t earn interest. They can’t transfer money to others. They don’t qualify for loans.

Fortunately, new technologies are offering important opportunities, particularly through cell phones.

The best-known and most celebrated online financial service utilizing cell phones is M-Pesa, launched in Kenya in 2007. M-Pesa allows users to deposit cash into their M-Pesa accounts (usually via the ubiquitous cell phone agents that sell users minutes all across Kenya), store money, and transfer money to others. They can also pay bills, purchase air time, and in some cases buy products.

The service spread quickly in Kenya, and currently includes over 25 million active users (which is about the entire adult population of the country). A study of M-Pesa by MIT and Georgetown researchers concluded that between 2008 and 2014, M-Pesa was responsible for lifting 200,000 families out of poverty (about 2% of total households).

M-Pesa has also been launched in Tanzania, South Africa, Afghanistan, India, and several Eastern European countries — to mixed success.

M-Pesa also provides a platform for other services. For example, the Kenyan company M-Kopa sells personal solar systems for households that are lacking electricity. Payments for the system are made daily for a year through M-Pesa. If a payment is missed, the system is disabled until payments resume.


zipExpanding broadband enables many new opportunities in health, including telemedicine, distance education, data collection, and others.

It can also assist in logistics. One California company, Zipline, combines sophisticated drone technology with expanded communications coverage in rural areas of Africa in order to deliver lifesaving medical supplies.

In 2016, Zipline launched its initial service in partnership with the Government of Rwanda. Distant clinics in hard to reach areas (of which there are many in Rwanda) can send by phone a request for blood, medicine, vaccines, surgical supplies, or other pressing needs. A drone is sent carrying up to 1.5 kg, and releases the payload by parachute to a pre-determined area. The drones, powered by electricity, can manage a round trip of up to 160 km.

Centralizing storage of key medical supplies allows for lower inventories, better security, and safer storage (often requiring refrigeration).

Since operations began, Zipline has completed over 1,400 flights and 100,000 km in Rwanda.

Zipline has announced a major expansion into Tanzania, including four delivery centers supporting 2,000 flights per day to over 1000 clinics across the country. Flights are beginning in early 2018.

Fiber Optic and Africa

africa cableThe internet relies almost completely on fiber optic cable for long distance transmission (the other alternative is satellite — which represents only about 1% of overseas traffic).

In the case of Africa, the first fiber optic connection to the continent technically arrived in 2000 with the SEA-ME-WE3 cable which stretches from Germany, through the Red Sea, to India, Southeast Asia, and Australia. It only connected to Egypt and Djibouti in Africa, however.

Meaningful connections to Africa didn’t appear for another decade with first-time linkages to many countries. Since then, every year has seen logarithmic growth in capacity — continuing into 2018. For example, current capacity to all of the countries of East Africa is approximately 24 terabits per second (Tbs) over multiple cables, a figure in 2018 expected to grow to nearly 90 Tbs due to the completion of a major new cable (DARE). West Africa capacity is approximately 45 terabits per second — a figure in 2018 expected to grow to nearly 200 terabits per second due to the completion of three new major cables (SAIL, SACS, EllaLink).

New cables not only introduce capacity, they also introduce redundancy. Undersea cables are periodically damaged unintentionally, such as the outage in Somalia last year due to a commercial shipping incident. With a new “web” of connections, outages will be less prolonged and severe.

Simultaneously, hundreds of projects are laying cable across the continent itself.

Liquid Telecom, operator of the largest fiber network across Africa, has laid over 50,000 km of cable. Other international companies are also involved. For example, in 2017 Google laid about 1000 km of fiber in Uganda, and is currently laying 1000 km more in Ghana. Facebook plans nearly 1000 km of fiber itself in Uganda.

With added capacity comes added competition — and lower prices. Nic Rudnick, the chief executive of Liquid Telecom, estimates that the price of moving a megabit of data from London to Lagos has dropped over several years from $600 to $2.

Fiber optic cable represents only part of the broadband solution in Africa — it will likely never reach most rural areas, for example. But in terms of providing a capable, expanding backbone to broadband services across the continent, fiber optic infrastructure is growing quickly.