Internet blimps are coming to Zanzibar. But can a UK company succeed where Google failed?

World Mobile is launching tethered balloons as part of a network providing internet coverage to two Tanzanian islands.

(CNN)The Tanzanian islands of Zanzibar and Pemba are about to become a test site for a mobile internet network its creators hope will not just revolutionize lives there, but possibly across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

Only around 20% of Tanzanians use the internet, according to the World Bank. That's low, even for sub-Saharan Africa where usage is affected by limited internet coverage and compounded by high data costs and low digital literacy. However, change could soon be written in the sky.
UK company World Mobile is launching a hybrid network using aerostats -- blimp-like tethered balloons that it says will provide near-blanket coverage across the islands.
    Two solar-powered, helium-filled balloons will float 300 meters (984 feet) above land and have a broadcast range of around 70 kilometers (44 miles) apiece, using 3G and 4G frequencies to deliver their signal. The balloons can survive winds of up to 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour) and stay airborne for up to 14 days before descending for refilling. In the few hours of downtime, other aerostats will be airborne, ensuring users are never without service, says the company.
      The signal from an aerostat -- used as a low altitude platform station (LAPS) -- is sufficient for tasks like internet browsing and email, says World Mobile. Meanwhile, construction is underway for a network of nodes on the ground, each able to provide WiFi for hundreds of people with speeds sufficient for video streaming and gaming. The network comprising 125 locations is scheduled for completion this year and the first balloon will launch in June.
      Workers install a World Mobile node as it constructs its land-air network.
      "Zanzibar represents a really interesting opportunity," World Mobile CEO Micky Watkins tells CNN. "It's approximately one and a half million people on the islands. It's like a small country."

        Where others have failed


        World Mobile will be aiming to succeed where larger companies have failed. Facebook's Project Aquila, an internet delivery system using high altitude drones, was closed in 2018. Loon, which used stratospheric balloons to deliver internet connectivity, and was part of Google parent company Alphabet, folded in January 2021.
        Project Aquila and Loon were designed to provide the internet to remote areas using high altitude platform station (HAPS) systems. Loon was used in disaster relief efforts, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017 (Loon partnered with CNN parent company AT&T to do so) and was also trialed commercially in Kenya as recently as 2020.
        Derek Long, head of telecoms and mobile at technology advisory firm Cambridge Consultants, says Loon and Facebook didn't succeed because they could not make the economics of their systems work, among other factors. However, he says, "a hybrid model can be fine-tuned to overcome this by providing high-capacity terrestrial solutions in highly populated areas and lower cost coverage solutions with non-terrestrial platforms."
        Long says that though the novelty of aerostats "may in itself generate some resistance to market acceptance," a hybrid land-air model, if "integrated seamlessly," could be the "best solution for the challenge at hand."
        World Mobile is also conducting experiments with HAPS technology, but is not waiting on it before rolling out its aerostats and ground WiFi network. "It would be silly to spend three to four years researching (and) developing the full network solution without deploying what we know we can deploy now," says Watkins.
        Aerostat designer Altaeros has entered a partnership with World Mobile to supply the balloons used to deliver part of its network in Zanzibar.