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.

A Quick Primer on Global Wealth

yachtWealth across the planet is distributed very unevenly. So is access to broadband. These two facts are related: broadband now tracks to areas with more wealth. In the future, when broadband is everywhere, we will have the opportunity to serve the poorest parts of the planet in ways heretofore impossible.

How unevenly distributed is wealth?

In 2017, Oxfam produced a report “An Economy for the 99%” which included a staggering statistic: The richest eight men in the world have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the planet (around 3.6 billion people).

(For those keeping track at home, the richest eight men in early 2017 were Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim Helu, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg — combined wealth of around $425 billion.)

Oxfam’s calculations are based on the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Data Book 2016

While all eight of the richest men could fairly be described as “self-made”, that isn’t true for the majority of billionaires (9 out of 10 of whom are men), according to Oxfam analysis. Over half of the world’s billionaires inherited their wealth or work in industries prone to cronyism and corruption.

82% of the wealth created in 2016 went to the top 1%.

Moon to Get 4G Network

moonVodaphone, in partnership with Nokia, plans to provide a 4G network on the moon in 2019. The project is part of a larger mission to place a lander and two “Audi Quattro Rovers” on the lunar surface. The initiative, spurred by the Google Lunar X Prize (which ends in March with no winners), will launch in 2019 on a Falcon 9 rocket.

4G coverage will be enabled by a 1kg Nokia cellular station which will allow real-time HD video to be beamed from Rovers to the main Lander to mission control in Berlin.

Stratolaunch Getting Closer

stratPaul Allen’s Stratolaunch satellite launch system appears to be getting closer to testing. The world’s largest aircraft, which will fly to a high altitude before launching three rockets affixed to its wing, is currently undergoing ground testing at its home at the Mojave Air & Space Port. The Stratolaunch wingspan of 352 feet is nearly 150 greater than a 747.

It is estimated that the Stratolaunch will be able to launch a payload of 5,000-10,000 pounds to low earth orbit — or around a tenth of a Falcon 9 launch. It should be much cheaper and more flexible, however, for microsatellites at low orbits. And there are a lot of uses for small satellites at low orbits.

Stratolaunch management is also reportedly considering the design of a reusable space shuttle vehicle which could deploy satellites or visit the space station.

It’s anticipated that flight testing will begin later this year. No dates are set for full operations.

Digital Welcome Wagon

wagonWelcome Wagon: a welcoming service that provides information about a community to new residents.

— Collins English Dictionary

As the next several billion people come online, what would an appropriate Digital Welcome Wagon look like for them?

Currently, most people are handed a smartphone with some pre-loaded apps (determined by both the manufacturer and the service provider) and maybe some literature about their service plan. In some parts of the world this is supplemented with information about Facebook Basics. That’s about it.  (When I recently started a new service in Nicaragua, I also got instructions about how Facebook and WhatsApp don’t charge for data, and also immediately started receiving multiple text messages with “upsells” for more data, music services, and discounts at Pizza Hut.)

What would an ideal new online experience be for a new smartphone user? How about:

  • A welcome video in an appropriate language from a credible person to greet the new user;
  • A quick tutorial on five really useful basic services to know about (such as phone, texting, camera, weather information, calendar);
  • A curated list of one or two outstanding sites for news, health, education, finance, and government services;
  • What to do if you need help;
  • Simple tutorials for more information, including how to avoid problems with fake news, fraud, or other issues.

Ideally this would be developed and managed by either governmental or international organizations as to not favor any given corporation.

We’re soon being joined online by a few billion fellow humans. Let’s welcome them!

Fake News in Developing Countries

ukraineFake news is a terrible problem in the US. In many other countries it is much worse:

  • According to Freedom House, only 13% of the world’s population live in countries with a free press;
  • In many developing countries, citizens have lower media literacy than those in rich countries;
  • In developing countries, there can be a blind trust of information via new technologies;
  • Many people get information from social networks on Facebook or WhatsApp, immediatly trusting what others have to say;
  • There often is a paucity of credible news sources or professional journalism to counterbalance rumor;
  • Many forces use social media maliciously, often with the backing of the state (such as Russian efforts in Ukraine).

To combat fake news in developing countries, it is necessary to take the same steps required in developed countries.

Even more, however, is necessary.

Often an independent, trained local media will need to be built up from nothing. Internews programs in Afghanistan, for example, have covered the country with professional, local radio broadcasting in regional languages.

Low-tech options for citizen journalism exist. CGNet Swara, for example, lets anyone call in and record a report by cell phone. Submissions are reviewed and curated into a newsfeed for the community.

Media literacy programs become even more important. In Ukraine, for example, media training programs for youth are now included in the national curriculum.

And many organizations need to participate in fact-checking. In Kenya, for example, Safaricom (the mobile phone company and Kenya’s largest corporation) spends 50% of its communications team resources combatting fake news.

Fake news is a major challenge in developing countries. With the rapid expansion of broadband, problems are poised to become even more difficult.