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Internet balloons represent much more than just internet

By Michael Cherambos | July 22nd 2020 at 09:00:00 GMT +0300

A Loon balloon floating in the air space. The availability of mobile Internet service via the Loon technology to Kenyans started in July 2020. [Courtesy, Standard]

Many of us never thought we would hear the phrase “Kenya is an innovation nation”.  Most of us never imagined that we would lead our continent in the fields of technology, telecommunications, and IT. 

The internet, something which just 20 years ago, was a luxury item in the west, and almost unheard of in large swathes of Africa. Yet today, we are light years ahead of our neighbours and significantly more advanced than many nations who had serious head starts in this realm.

With the recent joint initiative between Kenya and Google to launch internet balloons high up over our skies, Kenya is once again in the international headlines for the right reasons. As one of the countries in Africa with the highest internet penetration, we are racing forward to be the first African nation to reach almost universal coverage.  A true “innovation nation”. 

Phone coverage is already up there with the best. Drive around the country and you’ll be pushed to find an adult without a mobile phone for his or herself, or at least access to a phone in the family. While this in itself does not guarantee progress or prosperity, nor indeed food security, it is a signal of things to come.

Greater connectivity is always a good thing. Trade is the lifeblood of our economy, both internal and cross border. The flow of information is the pillar of good education. Only through communication can we share experiences and knowledge and further develop as a nation. Only through communication can we progress.

Over recent years, the mobile phone has even become a mini-bank for many of us. It enables us to get paid, to store cash, to pay.  The Kenyan entrepreneur in the city can supplement income with cab drives, or with part time work, receiving cash in a quick and painless manner. He or she can send that cash back to family from the cities thousands of kilometres away with the click of a button. Connectivity is therefore literally feeding Kenyans.

Our government has laid down over 6000 kilometres of the National Fibre Optic Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI) touching all 47 counties.  This is not slow internet. This is super high-speed internet. In the field of connectivity there is great talk of the ‘Internet of Things’. Education via the internet. Healthcare via the internet. Shopping via the internet. President Uhuru Kenyatta and his team have been true leaders in this field, putting it at the top of their priority list.

In fact, they have even come under fire from critics for their energetic focus on ‘Silicon Savannah’ policies, in what has been a traditionally agrarian society and economy. The philosopher, George Bernard Shaw once quipped that “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” For those who look at the internet infrastructure as anything but an investment in our future, it is time they had their minds changed. 

Criticism was also unfortunately hurled at Google for partnering with Kenya on this lucrative internet balloon project.  The aim is to have 35 of these flying internet providers over our blessed lands. Yet why the criticism? It turns out that other governments and entrepreneurs across the region have detested the fact that Google chose to start this project in a nation which already has almost 40 million of its citizens online.  Thus the criticism here against Google, is nothing but a back-handed compliment to Kenya.

Covid-19 has once again shown us the importance of the internet age. Those forced to work from home who had strong internet, could often continue their work as normal. Those without access suffered further. Students with internet could continue with their studies. Those without, suffered. In fact, education is an area where the internet has become part and parcel of progress.

From laptops and tablets in schools for many, to ensuring that our children are taught the basics of how to use a computer, our government has chosen a future technology-oriented education policy. Of course, there is much more work to do. Of course, further investment is required. But the investment in the connectivity of our nation is an investment in a better and brighter future for all.

Mr Cherambos comments on topical issues. [email protected]


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