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Doha Conference: Satellites to lift the world’s poorest countries out of the digital desert


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On Sunday, March 5, 2023, the United Nations Communications Agency announced on the sidelines of the Least Developed Countries Conference held in Doha that only a third of the world’s population can connect to the Internet, but low-altitude satellites can give hope to millions, especially in remote regions of Africa.

Giant technology companies, including Microsoft, have pledged to help populations suffering from poor infrastructure and Internet services transition to the era of network connectivity, as satellites will play a major role, while other companies send thousands of next-generation transmitters to low Earth orbit.

Currently, only 36 percent of the 1.25 billion people in the world’s 46 poorest countries have access to the Internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union. In contrast, more than 90 percent of the European Union’s population has access to the Internet.

The International Telecommunication Union condemned the “staggering international telecoms gap” which it said had widened over the past decade.

This gap was among the main complaints at the United Nations Conference of the Least Developed Countries, where UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted that these countries were being abandoned in the context of the “digital revolution”.

The digital scarcity is particularly severe in some African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where barely a quarter of the country’s 100 million people have access to the network.

And while Internet access is easy in major cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo such as Kinshasa, large rural areas and vast areas where rebel groups have been active for more than two decades are a digital desert.

Technology experts at the Doha conference predicted that the launch of thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit would bring rapid change and boost Africa’s hopes.

“Overtake other countries”

Satellite coverage will play a major role in Microsoft’s pledge to enable 100 million Africans to access the Internet by 2025, something that was outlined prior to the start of the conference.

Microsoft announced a first phase involving five million Africans in December and last week added a pledge to cover another 20 million people.

It will provide connectivity for the first five million people to Viasat, one of the companies sending satellite constellations into space to rival terrestrial fiber broadband.

Elon Musk’s “SpaceX” and “Star Link” companies will send thousands of satellites into orbit at an altitude of between 400 and 700 km from Earth.

Microsoft chief Brad Smith told AFP that when he saw the 20 million people his team proposed last year, he asked, “Is this realistic?” But he is now convinced it is possible.

He pointed out that “the cost of technology has decreased dramatically and will continue to decline… This is one of the factors that allow moving so quickly to reach a population segment of this size.”

“African countries have an opportunity to leapfrog and overtake other countries when it comes to regulatory structure for things like wireless,” he added.

“We can reach a lot more people than we could have done with fixed-line technology five, 10 or 15 years ago,” he added.


Rich countries have largely allocated available bandwidth to telecom and television.

“In Africa, bandwidth is not being used and is therefore available as governments move to provide that connection to more people,” Smith said.

Microsoft is working with Liquid Intelligent Technologies to bring internet to the second tranche of 20 million people.

Smith explained that providing Internet service and digital skills training to thousands of Africans is part of an effort aimed at providing a private sector alternative to “foreign aid,” stressing, “We are optimistic about what digital technology can achieve for development.”

But the Microsoft chief acknowledged that the private sector suffers from an “unfortunate lack of development and investment” in many of the economies of least developed countries.

Liquid Intelligence says it has 100,000 km of onshore fiber in Africa, but is moving to expand its presence into satellites.

“These are hard-to-reach areas,” said Nick Rudnick, executive vice president of the company. “Satellite is usually the only or most reliable technology for securing fast and stable broadband internet.”

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