Building Africa’s High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) Ecosystem
Central to the global dialogue on transitioning to the Fourth industrial revolution is the need to connect the nearly three billion, mostly rural and remote people that have never used the Internet. Are High Altitude Platform Systems (HAPS) the answer to bridging the digital divide? The blog argues for the development of the HAPS ecosystem to bridge the digital divide globally. The blog post will discuss how COVID-19 has highlighted the need to close the digital chasm. The blog will touch on connectivity in Africa and the work that is underway in this regard. The focus then shifts on the history of HAPS and the promise it holds for global connectivity. The conclusion emphasizes the potential for HAPS to connect the unconnected and work that is underway.
The African continent was not at the table for the debate on the colonization of celestial objects or the establishment of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. The development of Space and Satellite ecosystem early in the 1960s took place with most Sub-Sahara countries still under colonial rule. Africa was not part of the orbital slots allocation process and was therefore not allocated orbital slots including the geostationary arc above the African continent. This background dictates that Africa must spearhead discussions on the future of HAPS ecosystem on the African continent. Africa must research, build, fly or launch HAPS networks. The payload of HAPS vary; this paper will discuss the use of HAPS for connectivity.
Currently, mobile connectivity coverage in Africa sits at 70%. This level was a massive increase from 2010 when it was 26%. There remains a lot of work to provide affordable and reliable broadband to all. Majority of Africans connect to the Internet through their mobile phones. The growth in internet access has had numerous impacts on sectors like the financial services allowing more Africans access to the financial system as a result of growing fintech applications. However, the most rural and remote areas on the continent still struggle with reliable connectivity. The ITU “Connecting Humanity” estimates the cost of $428 Billion to connect the next 3 billion people globally by 2030. The World Bank has also estimated the cost of $100 Billion to achieve universal broadband in Africa by 2030. The World Bank report states that the continent would need an additional 250,000 new base stations and 250,000 kilometres of fibre to achieve universal broadband and that other innovative options would be required to connect the most remote areas.
Rolling out 250,000 kilometres of fibre and base stations would take years. COVID-19 pandemic alone has shown us how essential broadband coverage is to help front line workers adequately perform their jobs. The Internet is a crucial service and needs to become a priority for governments all over the world. Daily activities of school and work are moving online, leaving those with little to no internet access negatively impacted. The Internet has also assisted control the spread of COVID-19 with health apps for contact tracing and remote consultations. The World Economic Forum published a paper on how COVID-19 exposed the digital divide fault line with less than 1 in 5 people in developed countries connected. The article highlighted how the digital divide disproportionately impacts women. There is a clear push to connect the continent with Facebook and Google, both announcing high capacity submarine cables to connect Africa to the rest of the world. However, more work still needs to be done to connect the most rural and remote areas of Africa.
In advocating for universal access, we need to start exploring alternative mediums for reaching the unconnected. One innovative approach for connecting remote areas that I have been following closely since the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) introduced it in 1996 are High-Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS). When research on HAPS first began in 1996, work was slow, given the requirements of these systems. The HAPS ecosystem is made up of several players who are separately developing specific parts to make it a reality. This explains the protracted length of time for HAPS to be commercially viable. HAPS are unmanned aircraft or balloons that can provide wireless connectivity. They move through the stratosphere to connect remote communities to the Internet. HAPS are deployed as unmanned aircraft or airships and move around a predetermined location to provide Internet to communities within a 100km radius. They fly at 20km altitude (earth’s stratosphere) to avoid air traffic and extreme weather conditions that may negatively impact on coverage.
WRC-19 Agenda item 1.14 considered the appropriate regulatory actions for HAPS within the currently fixed service allocations. WRC-19 agreed to allocate additional frequency bands for HAPS and approved a concept of building 4G/5G HAPS Base stations. The frequency bands identified by the different regions for HAPS are 31–31.3 GHz and 38–39.5 GHz. The WRC-19 resolution also stated that HAPS can now provide broadband with minimal ground network infrastructure, thereby opening the door for lower-cost and faster deployment of the Internet. The ITU has permitted 4G/5G base stations to use the 2 GHz band for HAPS. The WRC-19 also assigned additional bands for studying HAPS 4G/5G for WRC-23. Looking back to 1997 when the ITU first allocated frequency bands for HAPS research, I believe we have come a long way, and the impact HAPS will have on the Internet globally is yet to be realized.
The African Telecommunications Union (ATU) WRC-19 preparatory meeting in my hometown of East London agreed to adopt a common African position on HAPS. The ATU common Africa proposal agreed on more frequency ranges to be set aside for HAPS to address connectivity deficiencies in remote parts of the continent. HAPS trials on the continent are already underway. HAPSMobile recently partnered with Facebook for a trial flight demonstration in South Africa. The test made use of the 26Ghz and 38Ghz that the ITU set aside for HAPS during WRC-19. This trial successfully extended broadband coverage for mobile network operators in rural areas. In Kenya Alphabet Loon partnered with Telkom Kenya to provide broadband services to specific areas. Loon has successfully provided connectivity to parts of west and central Kenya.
A cross-sector partnership between (1) Academia & Research (2) Public Sector (3) Private Sector is key in driving HAPS innovation in South Africa. Research institutions such as CSIR, Innovation Fund are well placed to support the development of HAPS. South Africa has the added advantage of available infrastructures such as Houwteq and Overberg Test Range as Platforms to develop HAPS. Also, South African human resource skills are available in the form of Institute of Software and Satellite Applications (ISSA) Alumni. This would be an opportunity to put their skills to use building a HAPS consortium with the Universities and Government. This organized groups would have to join a global forum like the HAPS ALLIANCE (www.hapsalliance.org) to be part of the worldwide ecosystem.
Globally, the short time it takes to deploy a HAPS system as opposed to laying down fibre has enormous promise for the unconnected. I am well aware of the significant role fibre will continue to play in bridging the digital divide; however, HAPS offer an alternative that is quicker to deploy. During the Ebola outbreak in Liberia (2013 and 2016), the World Health Organization country office decided to travel from village to village educating citizens on how to protect themselves and take charge of the outbreak response. During this engagement, community workers conducted house to house awareness campaigns and helped with contact tracing. At that time, broadband penetration in Liberia was inadequate, making the exercise difficult for community workers. If there was diffuse broadband penetration, the community workers could have spent less time to reach communities. This led the Liberian government to partner with USAID and CSquared, one of our (Convergence Partners) investee companies to deploy fibre around Monrovia to mitigate the risks of future outbreaks. It took us approximately two years to connect 100+ access sites. Through this deployment, we were able to connect several hospitals and schools to the Internet successfully. In retrospect, HAPS would have been able to connect the most remote areas of Liberia in a matter of weeks.
The use cases of HAPS continue to grow with work now being done on using HAPS as portable data centres given the growing use of cloud computing globally. Currently, hyperscale data centre players are deploying data centres on land; however, there is growing research being conducted on deploying portable data centres in the stratosphere as HAPS. The advantage of deploying data centres as HAPS in the stratosphere is the lower cooling costs. Microsoft recently retrieved a portable data centre that was placed in the ocean on the coast of Scotland for two years. This project by Microsoft was an attempt to find alternative ways of deploying data centres. According to the team in charge of this project, one of the most compelling reasons for deploying this data centre underwater was because of the cooling properties the sea offers. The growth of edge computing is a convincing case for deploying data centres both in the ocean and in the stratosphere. Furthermore, HAPS will also play an essential role as Africa’s megacities grow and we begin to develop smart cities.
In conclusion, HAPS will be critical in ensuring we bridge the digital divide. The work being done in this space will continue to grow. As the ITU continues to allocate additional spectrum for HAPS, I foresee several companies deploying HAPS to increase their coverage. I don’t think HAPS will completely replace traditional fibre optic and hyperscale data centres, and HAPS will be complementary. HAPS will also complement Low Earth Orbit Satellites (LEOs), Medium Earth Orbit (MEOs) Satellite and Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEOs) Satellite. Finally, given this emerging landscape, managing the use of Airspace from layers of Drones, Commercial Aircrafts, HAPS, and Satellites will require new regulatory skills both globally, regionally and nationally. The Policymakers and regulators must also issue test licensing and encourage HAPS research in South Africa.