A FEW DAYS ago Mark Zuckerberg, Bono, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and a host of other business leaders signed a declaration calling on world leaders to bring the Internet to the entire planet’s population by 2020. There’s certainly no shortage of schemes for making this happen. Facebook is building solar-powered drones that act as flying Wi-Fi hotspots. Branson is backing OneWeb, a company that plans to launch hundreds of low-orbit satellites to blanket the entire globe with Internet access. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is looking into much the same thing. Google, not to be left out of all the fun, is readying Project Loon, a fleet of high-altitude balloons designed to bring the Internet to remote areas. But the company also has a more down-to-earth project.
Today Google announced that it’s hard at work trenching pipe for a fiber optic network to serve the cities Accra and Kumasi in Ghana as part of its little-known Project Link initiative, which already provides broadband Internet to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. And while it may be boring compared to drones and satellites, it has the potential to improve access to the millions of people living in these cities.
“The goal is to bring abundant Internet access to the people who need it most,” says Google Ghana country manager Estelle Akofio-Sowah.
Google broke ground on the new 1,000-kilometer fiber network in June and is on track to offer the service to its first customers by the end of 2016, according to Akofio-Sowah.
Project Link is bringing the Internet to developing nations the old-fashioned way: with pipes full of cables buried in the dirt.
Unlike Google Fiber, which sells high-speed Internet directly to consumers in a handful of US cities, Project Link sells broadband capacity to other Internet service providers and mobile carriers. In other words, it’s an Internet backbone provider, aimed at bringing the Internet to developing nations the old-fashioned way: with pipes full of cables buried in the dirt. Some analysts believe this will be a cheaper and far more reliable way to bring broadband Internet to the four million people who don’t yet have access than more experimental projects like satellites and drones.
Africa’s broadband capacity has already gotten a massive boost in recent years from new undersea cables like Seacom on the continent’s east coast and Main One on the west coast. But bringing that capacity from the coast into the continents’s cities is another problem entirely, and that’s the issue that Project Link is trying to solve. Google certainly isn’t alone in trying to bridge this gap. The Mauritius-based company Liquid Telecom, for example, is working to bring broadband to landlocked countries like Zambia. But with any luck, Google’s involvement could help attract more investment on the continent.
The first Project Link network, quietly announced in late 2013, brought more broadband to the landlocked country of Uganda. Ghana, on the other hand, is one of the continent’s better connected countries, with multiple undersea cables connecting the nation to the rest of the world. Still, Akofio-Sowah, who was the managing director of the Ghanaian Internet service provider Busy Internet before joining Google, says that Internet capacity hasn’t really reached the public yet and that Internet access in the country is still too unreliable and inexpensive for most. “There are people who want to use the Internet, build apps, run their businesses online,” she says. “But they simply can’t.”
By piping additional bandwidth into Ghana’s largest cities, Project Link will ideally make Internet connections both cheaper and more reliable. But there may still be a role for Project Loon, which Akofio-Sowah says would be useful for bringing Internet access to more remote parts of the country.
“I would love to have some balloons fling over Ghana,” she says. “But unfortunately I’m not the decision maker on that one.”