DOHA: The United Nations Telecommunications Agency reported on Sunday that only a third of people in the world’s poorest countries have access to the Internet, but that low-orbiting satellites could provide newfound hope to millions, particularly in rural areas of Africa.
Tech titans like Microsoft have promised to help underserved communities “leapfrog” into the modern Internet age by funding the deployment of thousands of next-generation satellite transmitters.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, only 36% of the 1.25 billion people residing in the world’s 46 poorest countries have access to a computer with an Internet connection. In contrast, in the European Union, over 90% of the population has access.
The International Telecommunication Union criticized the “staggering international connectivity gap” that had grown over the previous decade.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the leaders of the Least Developed Countries at a summit in Doha, “you are being left behind in the digital revolution,” highlighting a major complaint at the summit.
Some African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, suffer from a severe lack of access to the internet, with only about a quarter of the country’s nearly 100 million people having access to the web.
Major cities in the DRC, such as Kinshasa, have easy Internet access, but vast swaths of land that have been fought over by rival rebel groups for more than two decades are digital deserts.
Doha summit tech experts promised rapid change and a boost to African hopes with the launch of thousands of Low-Earth-Orbit satellites.
Microsoft’s plan to provide Internet access to 100 million Africans by 2025, as outlined before the summit, will rely heavily on satellite coverage.
In December, Microsoft made a commitment to bring Windows 10 to 5 million people in Africa, and just last week, they upped that number to 20 million.
Viasat is one of the companies launching satellite constellations into space to compete with terrestrial fiber broadband, and it will provide service to the first five million customers.
Space X and Starlink, both owned by Elon Musk, are launching thousands of satellites to an altitude of 400 to 700 kilometers (250 to 430 miles) above Earth.
To AFP, Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted that he initially questioned whether or not the 20 million figure proposed by his team last year was realistic, but that he is now convinced it is possible.
The price of technology has dropped significantly and will continue to do so, he predicted. That’s why we can expand so rapidly to serve such a large population.
The African continent “has the opportunity to leapfrog other nations when it comes to regulatory structure for something like wireless communications,” he continued.
As an example, “we can reach much more people than we could with fixed line technologies five, ten, or fifteen years ago.”
The available bandwidth has been largely allocated for telecommunications and television in the more developed nations.
Unlike in the United States, “the spectrum isn’t being used in Africa, so it is available and the governments are moving faster to bring this connectivity to more people,” Smith said.
Internet access for an additional 20 million people in Africa is being made possible thanks to a partnership between Microsoft and telecoms expert Liquid Intelligent Technologies.
Smith declared, “we are bullish on what we believe digital technology can do for development” as he explained why his company was providing Internet access and digital skills training to thousands of Africans as a private sector alternative to “foreign aid.”
Although the private sector is “woefully under-developed and under-invested” in many LDC economies, Microsoft’s president admitted as much.
Although Liquid Intelligent is expanding its terrestrial fiber network across Africa (100,000 km; 62,000 miles), it is also making significant strides in the satellite sphere.
According to Nic Rudnick, the company’s deputy chief executive, “satellite is often the only technology or the most reliable technology for fast broadband that always works in hard-to-reach areas.”