Vodacom tests broadband balloons
January 5, 2024
London-based World Mobile Group recently launched its first ‘aerostat’ giant tethered balloon in Massingir, Mozambique, in collaboration with Vodacom. Vodacom has reportedly shared its spectrum and other key technologies to enable the balloon’s launch for a two-month trial in November and December 2023.
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.
One aerostat balloon can provide the same cover as about 12 conventional towers. The trial showed an aerostat is faster to deploy than traditional towers and could be installed and operated at one-eighth of the cost of a conventional base station.
The test site was chosen by the World Mobile aerostat flight director and Vodacom technical team because it had a sufficiently large open space in the middle of the village, access to mains power and an optical fibre backhaul, but lacked adequate cellular coverage.
World Mobile says the aerostat was able to provide effective coverage over 1,384 square kms, compared to 113 square kms covered by a conventional terrestrial base station. As a result, 93 percent people living in the vicinity of Massingir could get a cellular signal.
Mozambique’s internet penetration rate stood at a mere 23 per cent of the population in 2022
The trial kicked off in November 2023 and is designed to test “real world” usage and demand. The location is adjacent to the popular tourist region of the Kruger National Park.
World Mobile had been hoping to perform its tests in Zanzibar, the island which is part of Tanzania, but after waiting a year without a licence being granted it has shifted its focus to Mozambique.
World Mobile’s balloon is positioned about 300m in the air and is tethered to the ground, providing last-mile connectivity using a custom radio payload which replicates a traditional cell tower.
The project is something of a follow-on from Google’s Project Loon which also announced an agreement with Mozambique in 2020. But that plan ended in January 2021 citing challenges in finding a workable business model.