World Mobile Group and Vodacom have partnered to launch the first aerostat, or tethered balloon, in Massingir, Mozambique. The trial aims to assess the efficacy and sustainability of the aerostat technology in real-world scenarios.
The trial in Mozambique is more than just a technological experiment. “The success of this project could pave the way for similar initiatives across Africa and beyond, bringing us closer to a world where everyone is connected,” said World Mobile CEO Micky Watkins.
The trial kicked off in November and will assess the efficacy and sustainability of the aerostat technology in real-world scenarios.
Of the 5% of the world’s population not yet covered by mobile internet, half live and work in sub-Saharan Africa – in rural districts like Massingir, a remote part of Mozambique adjacent to Kruger National Park.
The company initially hoped to launch aerostats – helium-filled balloons tethered to a base station on the ground with a high-speed fibre connection – in Zanzibar and Pemba, both in Tanzania. But after waiting 11 months for permission to be granted by the regulator, it decided to launch elsewhere.
In an October 2023 CNBC Africa interview, Watkins said: “Mozambique regulators and flight authorities have been incredible.” But he added that as soon as Zanzibar grants permission, World Mobile will launch on the island.
Mozambique’s internet penetration rate stood at a mere 23% of the population in 2022, an unsurprising figure given that almost 62% of its population lives in rural areas. Most of the country’s infrastructure is concentrated in urban centres, while a lack of electricity in rural areas means there is limited power to support internet access.
According to the World Bank, this lack of connectivity inhibits access to healthcare, education and economic opportunities, and almost three-quarters of the unconnected population needs help to afford internet services or devices such as smartphones and computers.
World Mobile’s Massingir aerostat is about 300m in the air and tethered to the ground, providing last-mile connectivity using a custom radio payload. This means customers can directly connect to the payload using internet-connected devices akin to a traditional cell tower.
The aerostats offer standard cellular connectivity covering a radius of up to 130km, overcoming the challenges of terrain, infrastructure and cost that often hinder the expansion of mobile networks.
The company’s aerostat expert, Gregory Gottlieb, said, “An aerostat is one of several different types of lighter-than-air vehicles with a long history, much longer than aeroplanes or anything else that flies. They rely on the principle that approximately one cubic metre of helium can generate enough lift to carry 1kg.”
The way an aerostat lifts a payload into the air is not by floating but by displacing the air around it – similar to turning an empty glass upside down in a sink, he said. The rope that keeps this floating balloon of helium fixed to the ground is among the most crucial components of the solution.