Satellites could beam poorest nations out of digital desert

Tech giants including Microsoft have pledged to help populations hobbled by poor internet services

Satellites could beam poorest nations out of digital desert. Only a third of people in the world’s poorest countries can connect to the internet, the UN telecoms agency said on Sunday, but low-flying satellites could bring hope to millions, especially in remote corners of Africa.

Tech giants including Microsoft have pledged to help populations hobbled by poor internet services to “leapfrog” into an era of online connectivity, with satellites set to play a key role as rival firms send thousands of new generation transmitters into low level orbit.

At the moment just 36 per cent of the 1.25 billion people in the world’s 46 poorest countries can plug into the internet, the International Telecommunication Union said. By comparison, more than 90pc have access in the European Union.

The ITU condemned the “staggering international connectivity gap” that it said had widened over the past decade.

The divide has been a key complaint at a UN summit of Least Developed Countries in Doha, where UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told their leaders that “you are being left behind in the digital revolution”.

The digital dearth is particularly acute in some African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, where barely a quarter of the population of nearly 100 million can connect.

While internet access is easy in major DRC cities such as Kinshasa, huge rural zones and swathes of territory battled over by rival rebel groups for more than two decades are digital deserts.

The launch of thousands of Low-Earth Orbit satellites could bring speedy change and boost African hopes, tech experts promised at the Doha summit.

‘Leapfrog other nations’

Satellite coverage will play a key role in Microsoft’s vow to bring internet access to 100 million Africans by 2025, which was outlined ahead of the summit.

Microsoft announced a first phase for five million Africans in December and last week added a commitment to cover another 20 million people.

The initial five million will be served by Viasat, one of the companies sending constellations of satellites into space to compete with land-based fibre broadband.

Elon Musk’s Space X and Starlink are also putting thousands of satellites into an orbit between 400 and 700 kilometres above Earth.

Microsoft president Brad Smith said that when he first saw the 20 million figure proposed by his team last year, he asked “is this real?”, but that he was now convinced it is possible.

“The technology costs have come down substantially and will continue to drop,” he said. “That is part of what makes it possible to move this fast to reach this size of population.


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