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Google's plans to expand mobile broadband in Africa could revolutionize daily life on the continent. But it has analysts asking whether the Internet giant is just trying to get an early start in a growing market.
Mobile Web connectivity is such a part of everyday life in most parts of the developed world that no one gives it a second thought anymore. But that's not the case in other parts of the world, especially in Africa. Internet giant Google is trying to change that.
"Google's goal in Africa has been to improve Internet access, help make the Web relevant to Africans, and help strengthen a sustainable Internet ecosystem," Google's Lena Wagner told DW.
Indeed, the tech giant is cooperating with governments and local authorities in countries across Africa and Southeast Asia to link up the Web.
Current projects include "a TV white spaces trial in South Africa [Eds: a project in which free TV frequencies are used to beam the Internet to schools], Wazi WiFi in Kenya, and the Google Access Support Program to provide WiFi at African universities," Wagner said.
This is not just philanthropy
Google's intentions in Africa are not just altruistic, according to editor and wireless technology analyst Brad Reed at "Boy Genius Report" (bgr.com).
"It's easy to understand why Google is working to bring mobile broadband connectivity to Africa: The company wants to get an early start on securing its next generation of customers," he said.
Converging booms in Internet and cell phone technologies in Africa hold the promise of economic growth
Google's "rollout might be non-profit, but the future prospects aren't. With 87% of its $50 billion annual revenue coming from advertising, Google's future is highly dependent on audience growth," writes Carol Kopp on The Wall Street Journal's "MarketWatch."
And that means Africa and Asia. Only 16% of Africa's population has Internet access and about one in three Asians and Pacific Islanders currently have Internet access, according to "MarketWatch."
The early bird gets the data
Gaining a strong foothold now could reap highly lucrative future benefits, particularly because mobile use is accelerating due to lower costs and greater availability of devices.
"That means that Google is looking at hundreds of millions of prospective new customers who will have their first experiences using the web through Google services," analyst Reed observed.
Anthony Mullen, a telecoms analyst at Forrester Research, agrees.
"While there will be an altruistic element to Google undertaking this work, which is laudable, there is also a medium to long-term acquisition plan for the African consumer at play, too," he said.
The ultimate impact of the Africa rollout for Google sounds familiar, too.
"It's always about the data. Insight into African behaviors and becoming woven into systems means Google retains their No. 1 spot for data insights worldwide," Mullen said.
Adapting to the environment
Google aims to use satellites and aerial transmitters on balloons and blimps, such as in the company's recently announced "Project Loon" trial, to eventually expand mobile broadband connectivity in Africa.
"Different technologies are needed for different environments, so while Google Fiber [Eds: a broadband Internet Infrastructure project in the US] is appropriate for the developed world, new approaches that are built from the ground up and contextually appropriate make sense - hence the use of blimps with low friction for deployment as they can be installed without the need for ground level-infrastructure - given the size of the African continent," observed Forrester's Mullen.
But white space technology, which allows signals to travel further and penetrate walls unlike higher Wi-Fi or Bluetooth radio frequencies or traditional cellular networks, offers one of the most promising advancements.
The technology is particularly suited for remote areas that lack stable, fixed broadband, such as in Africa. Government regulators are therefore considering allocating more airwaves for broadband purposes.
Software giant Microsoft, for its part, said it planned to test white space technology in Kenya, while Google is experimenting with the wireless broadband system at schools and universities in Cape Town, South Africa and in Uganda - aiming to show that white space Internet access works without disturbing TV signals.
The Loon project, in which hot air balloons will beam the Internet to Earth, is taking place in New Zealand
"Traditional telecoms companies have been making progress in Africa as they are acutely aware that in emerging countries, there is technology leapfrogging - that is to say that Africans are bypassing desktops and going straight to mobile," Forrester Research's Anthony Mullen said.
"Telecoms providers are trying to entrench themselves by meeting needs on mobile through tools like Web services and mobile payments and bank accounts," he added.
'A good thing for Africa'
Africa has become so interesting for Google that it supported an "Impact of the Internet in Africa" study released this year by the consultancy firm Dalberg Global Development Advisors. The report focuses on "establishing conditions for success and catalyzing inclusive growth in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Nigeria."
Regardless of Google's real motives in Africa, the impact of broader Internet usage in the developing world in general, and in Africa in particular, could be huge - from economic growth, to promoting democracy movements via social-networking (as was seen with the Arab Spring), combatting disease by providing health information and education via the Web, and helping small-scale farmers improve their incomes.
"It's a good thing for Africa - consumers will benefit, governments will stroke their chins and small and medium-sized enterprises will be able to depend more meaningfully on a quality infrastructure," Forrester's Mullen said.