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Where are the Google Internet balloons?

Tuesday June 30 2020
Cyber Cafe

PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL | FILE People browsing in a cyber cafe in Nairobi.

By JOHN WALUBENGO

It is three months since President Uhuru Kenyatta announced the coming of the Google Internet balloons. He was instantly met with quite some backlash on social media.

Many thought the timing was quite misplaced since Kenyans were in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown had began to affect the health and livelihoods of Kenyans.

So to most Kenyans, providing Google balloons was quite far removed from the realities of the pandemic.

But I gave the president the benefit of doubt. Perhaps the Google balloons would come in handy to assist in providing affordable Internet to power the rapidly emerging remote way of doing things.

Beyond the office lifestyle which quickly settled into online meetings and other online collaborative way of doing things, other aspects of Kenyan lives were also being transformed. For example, online shopping, previously a reserve of the high-income category of users was becoming popular with health-conscious population and the traditional supermarkets have quickly responded with e-commerce offerings.

Learning and teaching too quickly moved online as well, particularly for the private schools and colleges.

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Students and their teachers were having to upgrade their online skills in order to cope with the new realities of remotely delivered lessons, assignments, assessments and grading.

As Covid-19 patients became the focal point of medical facilities, the regular patients started postponing their visits to hospitals and an opportunity for remote medical consultations was quickly taken up by major hospitals and private physicians.

From the comfort of your Internet connection at home, you could engage your doctor, get checked and have your medicine prescribed and delivered to your doorstep.

In essence, work, learning, health and shopping had moved online and the common denominator was an Internet connection.

Unfortunately Internet connections – despite being fairly widely available across Kenya, are not affordable.

Internet connections, particularly mobile-based Internet connections, may look cheap in terms of one shilling per Megabyte (MB) of data. However, if you are going to need five to 10 GB of data to support your online classes in one month, this can easily translate to a monthly bill of Sh5000. That is half the average of incomes of Kenyans and clearly not affordable since one cannot spend half their salaries to get an Internet service. 

A new solution was therefore needed to support the digital lifestyles occasioned by the pandemic.

Days later after the president’s announcement of the Google balloons, many Kenyans thought the balloons were coming to address this challenge of providing affordable Internet connectivity to a wide majority of Kenyans.

Designed to send internet signals in remote areas of Kenya, these balloons would have provided a level playing field to all Kenyans in terms of accessing education, health and other essential services that are moving online.

Unfortunately, three months later, one wonders where these Google balloons went.  Or is it that they never arrived?

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu


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