Loonie tune for Africa broadband?

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“All they wanted to do was sit around in hotel rooms and talk,” a senior Kenyan official told me about South African officials tasked with building undersea cables.

So Kenya went on their own, building its own connections to the great communication network that now powers the world’s economy. In no small part, Kenya now has a bustling start-up culture, is being heralded as Africa’s answer to Silicon Valley (quaintly called Silicon Savannah) and is the toast of the continent whenever tech entrepreneurship is mentioned.

Now, Google is doing something similar. Project Loon is a grand plan to wire up, or unwire, Africa and other underconnected parts of the world. Rather than lay expensive fibre and other terrestrial infrastructure, Google has done some blue sky thinking by using balloons to achieve the same.

It will use these balloons that will float at twice the height of commercial airliners to beam down internet access. It’s real sci-fi thinking, but faced with the alternative (waiting for politicians with no sense of haste, nor public service) what choice do they have if they want to reach the next billion?

It’s a grand plan that will open the search giant up to accusations of foolhardiness.

But Google quotes the World Bank statistic that only South African Cabinet ministers seem not to know: for every 10% increase in internet penetration there is a corollary 1.4% growth in a country’s GDP.

Although Loon is currently only being piloted in New Zealand, there are plans to expand it to South Africa, Argentina, Australia, Chile, and Uruguay.

Luke Mckend, Google South Africa’s country director, said the internet contributes up to 2% (or R59-billion) of the country’s GDP, quoting figures from a Google-sponsored survey called Internet Matters done by World Wide Worx.

“We think that more internet access can boost economic development and job creation, which is highly pertinent in South Africa’s current climate,” said Mckend. (Disclosure: we’re friends and both belong to a tribe of self-inflicted depressives known as South African rugby fans)

But, this is Google’s dilemma. If Africa is the next great powerhouse, a point made by TED speakers and economists Charles Robertson and Dambisa Moyo last week, they are going to need access to the internet. Without the countries themselves doing something, it’s left to the next to private industry or determined government officials.

Google is only partly altruistic here (even if this is a noble gesture for which we should thank them). Google wants that next billion people who are coming online to use their services, just as the Android operating system it gives away free was a way to maintain it’s desktop dominance in the mobile age.

Over 500-million of the forecast 3-billion new global mobile internet users could come from Africa by 2020, according to Delta Partners.

Not that it isn’t laudable. We need all the help we can get to get online at decent broadband speeds, and as any South African can tell you, it won’t be through the government’s intervention. Not unless they think there are major kick-backs to be had.

For instance, look at Moses Mabhida stadium which was built right next door to an existing Durban stadium that could’ve been upgraded to within a few thousand seats of what was required for the World Cup.

Why was it built then? The kick-backs are bigger. This simple economic principle is what is required to understand the South African government’s thinking.

Why are mining rights so hotly contested? Why is AMCU trying to unseat NUM as the major union in the platinum mining belt? Why are the Guptas opening state funded-diary farms in the Free State with no previous knowledge of milking (cows, that is)? The kick-backs are bigger.

I wonder how former SA Communist Party leader Moses Mabhida would feel about his name being eternally associated with such absurd extravagance and wastefulness.

It turns out flights of fancy on balloons isn’t so far-fetch after all.

This column first appeared on Financial Mail

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