I was really taken aback when one afternoon in the early days after Kenya recorded her first Coronavirus case, the President appeared on TV and launched internet balloons, which he stated were meant to enhance internet connectivity to support working and learning from home.
Many were quick to criticize the government for providing internet instead of cushioning people from job losses and economic slowdown triggered by the tough COVID 19 control measures.
Upon reflection I realize that many people, me included, missed the bigger picture. Although providing a short-term relief to the sudden rise in demand for internet connectivity as a result of COVID 19 containment measures, Kenyans stand to reap long-term socio-economic benefits from the project.
The Loon balloons work by beaming internet signals from ground stations to an overhead balloon which then transmits it to other balloons, a floating network of cell towers, thus extending coverage. The balloons operate at a height of 60,000 feet above the ground and provide stable, reliable broadband connectivity.
The aim of the project, which supported by a collaboration between Alphabet Plc, a subsidiary of Google, and Telkom Kenya, is therefore to enhance internet availability across the country, using Loon balloons travelling on the edge of space.
The project was launched at the right time with the country in the initial phases of containing COVID 19. Boosting internet connectivity was geared towards minimizing the disruption caused by social distancing and stay-at-home measures to curb the spread of the disease, while ensuring unhindered productivity to keep the economy afloat.
This is particularly important because, though Kenya boasts one of the highest internet penetration levels in Africa, with an estimated 46 million internet users, internet coverage in the rural areas especially 4G has been limited due to infrastructure constraints.
The Loon balloon project seeks to address this challenge by improving broadband connectivity in the rural areas which is critical to bridging the digital divide.
In addition to unlocking many social and economic opportunities among rural communities, improved broadband internet connectivity using technologies like 4G is also crucial in improving security in remote areas especially in north-eastern Kenya, where terrorist attacks have been on the rise.
The region has witnessed a spate of attacks by Al Shabab targeting security officers, civilians and critical infrastructure like telecommunication masts, cutting off internet along the Kenya-Somalia border.
Garissa has borne the brunt of terrorist raids on communication infrastructure. The terrorists target critical infrastructure as a way of disrupting essential services, demonstrating capability to hit soft targets and expose vulnerability of the security system. They also disrupt communication networks to gain advantage over security and law enforcement agencies.
The ensuing communication lacuna enables the extremist militants to conduct multiple raids on vulnerable communities. They also spread extremist propaganda, rhetoric and misinformation through internet sites hosted by communication systems sympathetic to their cause.
According to the International Crisis Group, a security think tank, constant destruction of communication masts by Al Shabab has had dire socio-economic consequences for communities in north-eastern Kenya.
Al-Shabaab’s frequent destruction of communication masts along the border has forced residents to travel long distances to make telephone calls. These attacks have also locked many locals out of the vibrant mobile phone money transfer system that has become a vital avenue of commercial activity in Kenya.
“Lack of communication lines has also limited the capacity of security forces to respond quickly to attacks. Hundreds of health centres have been closed due to lack of staff,” the organisation said in a report last year.
According to Foundation for Dialogue, an NGO working in PCVE space “the Loon balloons floating high in the stratosphere denies the Al shabab a crucial target. The balloons will also provide high speed internet connectivity to local communities, thus boosting security responses, since residents can report incidents without communication disruption as has been the case”.
The improved connectivity will also aid ongoing efforts to counter violent extremism and radicalization.
In addition, the internet through social media platforms is an effective tool for countering extremist narratives online and ventilating local political, economic and social grievances that are likely to fuel radicalization especially among the youth.
Moreover, with one balloon providing internet coverage over an average 5,000 square kilometres, Google Loon should spread into the Horn of Africa and boost the regional war on terrorism by enabling closer monitoring of security threats and aiding better coordination of responses.
Technology alone cannot defeat terrorism. But security responses aimed at countering terrorism and combating violent extremism will benefit a lot from technological innovations that empower vulnerable communities.
Mr. Mwachinga is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a Partner at Viva Africa Consulting LLP. [email protected]