The explosion of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket yesterday was bad news for SpaceX, certainly, but the loss of the rocket’s payload is particularly troubling in light of the need to further expand internet access within Sub-Saharan Africa. That payload was the Amos-6 communications satellite, which Facebook, as part of its Internet.org initiative, intended to use to provide broadband internet coverage for large zones of East, West and Southern Africa, in partnership with French satellite operator Eutelsat. Amos-6 was scheduled to launch into geostationary orbit on Saturday.
The Internet.org initiative aims to provide internet access to the majority of the world’s population that is not connected to the internet—about four billion by some estimates, though the numbers differ depending on how one defines the terms “connected”or “access.” By some measures, the proportion of the population with regular internet access is estimated at an average of 19 percent for Sub-Saharan Africa—even though the region has one of the world’s highest mobile penetration rates—compared to 87 percent in North America. Complete or partial lack of connectivity occurs in large part due to problems of affordability or, to a lesser degree, lack of physical access. An estimated 300 million Africans live over 50 km away from the closest fiber or cable broadband connection, and some 400 million Africans lack any kind of internet access, period. Moreover, for many Sub-Saharan Africans, a related problem is also one of access to and cost of electricity: the cost of charging internet-enabled devices can be orders of magnitude higher than for people living in, say, North America or Europe. For instance, it costs an average of about $0.25 per year for a user to charge an iPhone once a day in the United States, whereas it would cost $0.25 for a rural Kenyan each time their phone is charged—not to mention the time spent going to and waiting at a local charge shop for the batteries to charge.
Facebook is one of several tech companies that have been addressing both the affordability and the physical remoteness constraints of providing internet access to less-connected regions in Sub-Saharan Africa. With respect to the latter constraint, Facebook has been developing new methods to deliver internet access, of which the Amos-6 satellite was a part. Internet provision via satellite solves traditional problems to land-based infrastructure, as satellite broadband technology can overcome certain geographical barriers like mountains, deserts, or dense forests, for instance.
In a Facebook post written from Kenya, Mark Zuckerberg noted that, while the explosion is “deeply disappointing,” Facebook is developing alternative methods of expanding internet connectivity in lower-income regions. These methods include OpenCellular, a small device that can set up a local wireless network in areas that lack traditional cellular infrastructure, and Aquila, the solar-powered light aircraft that would use laser technology to beam internet service down to remote areas. The Aquila aircraft are conceptualized as working in tandem with satellite technology to help provide wide-ranging internet coverage from the sky.
The problems of internet connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa and other lower-income regions remains as urgent as ever. The internet is a major driver of growth and economic transformation, and enhancing further access in Sub-Saharan Africa through technological innovation would help unlock an unprecedented degree of entrepreneurship in the region.