In the last year, the world has woken up to the crucial importance of connectivity in developing nations, with Africa a priority in this regard. The likes of Facebook, Google and Qualcomm have launched their own initiatives or partnered in global alliances to solve a problem that continues to hinder the economic growth of developing countries in Africa and beyond – Tom Jackson
There are serious economic benefits to getting more of Africa online. A study by the World Bank estimates a 10 per cent increase in broadband connectivity results in a 1.38 per cent increase in GDP. McKinsey says internet-related consumption and expenditure worldwide overtook agriculture and energy in 2011, while the Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington’s Information School says community access to ICT is pivotal in connecting people to information and skills.
Cost has been a major impediment to connectivity in Africa, with only 16 per cent of Africans online compared to 77 per cent in the developed world. In Europe, a 1GB data plan costs two per cent of gross national income (GNI), but in Africa it costs as much as 50 per cent. Facebook said in last year’s ‘A Focus on Efficiency’ report that current data costs are 100 times too expensive.
Alliance for Affordable Internet
International initiatives are underway to tackle the issue. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) was formed last year by public and private sector players to promote open, competitive and innovative broadband markets at lower cost, and has already begun working with several African governments, notably Nigeria, Ghana and Mozambique. This followed hot on the heels of Facebook’s internet.org, which is aiming to provide internet access to five billion people. Google’s ambitious Project Loon – which looks to provide connectivity to underserved regions – can also be counted amongst these efforts.
African solution to Africa’s problem
But now there is an African solution to Africa’s problem. Kenyan firm BRCK, which originally spun out of renowned Kenyan mapping firm Ushahidi but has since established itself as an independent entity, recently closed a US$1.2 million funding round to begin shipments of its modem-cum-router device, which it says is aimed at solving last-mile connectivity issues in Africa.
Works even without electricity
The BRCK is a rugged device that the company says can “connect to the internet any way it could, hop from one network to another, create a hotspot for multiple devices, while plugged in or running on battery power”.It works even without electricity, a consistent problem in East Africa where figures suggest 90 per cent of schools and 30 per cent of hospitals are off-grid. Portable and easy to set up, it supports up to 20 devices, and has Wi-Fi powerful enough to cover multiple rooms. The BRCK has eight hour battery backup, a 16 GB hard drive, 8 GPIO pins to connect sensors, is software infused to allow for apps, remote management, and data collection, and has a documented API.
“The BRCK works much the way your cell phone does, by intelligently and seamlessly switching between Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and 3G or 4G mobile phone networks. By plugging in a SIM card or connecting to a wired or wireless ethernet connection the BRCK will automatically get online. Power is also redundant; if your AC power fails, BRCK falls back on its 8-hour battery without needing to be told,” the company says.
“The BRCK is a software infused device, operating seamlessly with the BRCK Cloud, our website that you can access from anywhere to check how network connections and electricity are performing on your device. You can also manage alerts and applications remotely from your phone or computer, as well as gather data reported from attached sensors or computers.”
The company says its device taps into the unique market characteristic of emerging market internet subscribers, 65 per cent of whom access the internet wirelessly. It allows users to leverage the mobile broadband and turn it into a connection “designed for productivity”.
“Power spikes and outages are everyday occurrences in Nairobi and across Sub-Saharan Africa, no matter your income level,” BRCK said. “In Nigeria for example, you can expect up to 300 outages each year for 5-8 hours at a time. Power spikes are even more unpredictable.”
Co-founder Erik Hersman told AppsAfrica the BRCK was now at the shipping and iteration phase, with the company upgrading firmware and trying to improve the device’s user experience.
“We’re also working on some pretty interesting things around extending the BRCK, first with local Wi-Fi antennas for greater range, and second is opening up our GPIO port for more development with other hardware,” he said. “Our current focus is on how we can get a Raspberry Pi working well with the BRCK, thereby creating a small, rugged remote server.”