Mobile Connectivity Soars with Helium Balloons in Mozambique.
A giant helium-filled balloon, known as an “aerostat”, is being deployed in southern Mozambique to help deliver mobile broadband to those without a reliable connection.
An aerostat works in a similar way to a traditional telecoms tower. But because the radio antenna attached to the aerostat is raised to a far higher altitude than a typical tower – around 300m above the ground – it can offer connectivity over a much wider area.
“At the end of the day, for us in the context of rural areas, height means everything. Getting up high means we can see further into the radio horizon,” says Micky Watkins, World Mobile’s CEO. “And if you can see further into the radio horizon, you can cover more people.”
World Mobile says that its aerostat offers connections over a radius of up to 130km. Watkins estimates that 12-15 towers would be needed to cover the same area.
“Managing 15 mobile network operator towers in a rural environment is a challenge to say the least – you’ve got to power each site, you’ve got to secure each site, you’ve got to bring fibre to each site, you’ve got to have a security guard on each site,” he explains. “So having one centralised point where you can achieve the same as you would with 12-15 traditional 30m towers is far easier to manage and deploy.”
Aerostats need to be refilled with helium approximately every two to four weeks. A crew is also required to operate the device and ensure the tether to the ground is not severed.
Watkins believes aerostats can provide an ideal solution for closing the “last mile” gap in mobile internet connectivity in Africa. Mobile network operators have been slow to provide telecoms infrastructure in remote and rural parts of the continent. This reflects how deploying towers to serve relatively small numbers of mostly low-income customers is unlikely to be profitable.
According to mobile industry group GSMA, sub-Saharan Africa continues to lag far behind the rest of the world in mobile connectivity. Some 180m people in sub-Saharan Africa are not covered by a mobile internet signal (amounting to 15% of the population). Another 680m people (59% of the population) have some form of coverage but do not use mobile internet.
Taking to the skies
Aerostats are not a new technology, but they have historically been used mainly for military purposes – including to provide coverage to troops in warzones where civilian telecoms infrastructure is out of action. Besides World Mobile, only a handful of other commercial operators have experimented with aerostats. US-based telecoms giant AT&T has used the technology to provide coverage to emergency first responders, including in the aftermath of a hurricane in Louisiana in 2020.
Watkins says his company, which is also developing blockchain-based network solutions, is aiming for the widespread use of aerostats for commercial purposes.
“This for us represents a viable, profitable solution for connecting the unconnected – something that mobile network operators have missed so far,” he says. “It just hasn’t been tried yet in full but we believe that we can be the ones to make aerostats very fashionable within the mobile network world.”
World Mobile originally sought to begin its Africa operations in Zanzibar, but turned to Mozambique after struggling to get regulatory approvals. Watkins says the authorities in Mozambique gave a warm welcome to the company.
“The regulator was very, very encouraging, the flight authorities were very, very encouraging and they really wanted us to come,” he says.