Internet balloons will boost counter-terrorism war

Thursday, May 7th, 2020 00:00 |
Workplace. Photo/Courtesy

Edward Mwachinga     

I was really taken aback when one afternoon soon after Kenya recorded her first coronavirus case, the President appeared on TV and launched internet balloons, which he said would enhance internet connectivity to support working and learning from home. 

Many were quick to criticise the government for providing internet instead of cushioning people from job losses and economic slowdown triggered by the tough Covid-19 control measures.

But upon reflection I realise many people, myself included, missed the bigger picture.

Although providing short-term relief to the sudden rise in demand for internet connectivity as a result of pandemic containment measures, Kenyans stand to reap long-term socioeconomic 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 is supported by a collaboration between Alphabet Plc, a subsidiary of Google, and Telkom Kenya, is will  enhance internet availability across the country. 

The project was launched at the right time with the country in the initial phases of containing coronavirus.

Boosting internet connectivity was geared towards minimising the disruption caused by social distancing and stay-at-home measures, 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 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 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-Shabaab insurgents against security officers, civilians and critical infrastructure, cutting off internet near the Kenya-Somalia border. 

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 extremists to conduct multiple raids on vulnerable communities. 

According to the International Crisis Group, a security think tank, constant destruction of communication masts by terrorists has had dire socioeconomic consequences for communities in Northern Kenya.  

Consequently, residents travel long distances to make phone 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. 

Foundation for Dialogue, an NGO working in PCVE space says “the Loon balloons floating high in the stratosphere denies the terrorists 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 radicalisation.

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 likely to fuel radicalisation especially among youth.  

While technology alone cannot defeat terrorism, it is a critical component in the fight. —The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of KenyaLLP. [email protected]   

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