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ian david stewart

Google's recently announced plan to wire the world offers an exciting prospect for sub-Saharan Africa to tap into the Internet. But unless the company is prepared to underwrite the cost of Africa's more urgent and immediate education, infrastructure and technology needs, this project may be doomed to go the way of the Hindenburg or the Spruce Goose.

If the Internet has been forging a "global village," then vast portions of the planet continue to reside on the outskirts from whence they look on, as much of the West progresses to new technological heights and disproportionate wealth; many African countries south of the Sahara languish in poverty, illiteracy and a profound technological abyss.

Last month, however, Google launched its audacious scheme – dubbed Project Loon – to narrow the gap by providing Internet access to rural and remote regions in some of the most underserved parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

Using a fleet of stratospheric balloons to beam Internet signals down to earth, Astro Teller, a scientist with Google's secretive development lab Google[x] says, "Project Loon is working to bring the technologies of access to everyone on the planet."

While laudable on a philanthropic level, and awe-inspiring as a monumental effort to address the vast ICT inequities of the planet, it's hard to fathom how such a savvy company such as Google would put the horse before the cart.

Internet access in Africa is only as good and useful as the educational, infrastructural and economic foundation needed to receive and interpret the countless Exabytes of data that pass through the Web every day.

Anyone who has spent time in sub-Saharan Africa should know that electricity –particularly in the rainy season – is a hit-and-miss commodity. This is especially true of the "rural, remote, and underserved areas," Project Loon director Mike Cassidy has touted as the objective of the plan.

Likewise, government corruption, in-fighting and inefficiency frequently lead to diesel and gas shortages in parts of Africa, thus sidelining the generator as a stop-gap solution to Africa's decrepit and frail power grids.

Project Loon, moreover, will be providing Internet access to many African populations whose adult and youth literacy rates are well below 50 per cent. For example, UNESCO reports that in 2011 only 29 per cent of adults in Niger could read or write, let alone surf the Web.

And finally, there's the question of technological penetration. The Internet is of little use without the hardware upon which to process it. Few countries in sub-Saharan Africa have enough computers or smartphones to make Project Loon worth the helium required to carry its balloons the projected 20 kilometres above Earth.

During the first decade of the 21st century, computers slowly began entering African markets, but prohibitively high costs have limited the reach of the PC. Of course, that is changing, particularly with the advent of relatively affordable smartphones. In fact, the World Bank expects a dramatic rise in the number of smartphone users in sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years. However, it cautions that smartphone penetration will dominate urban centers in economic hubs such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. It remains to be seen if the rise in smartphone use will benefit those remote, rural regions that are off the grid.

In the end, Google's Project Loon is a step in the right direction for an Africa that is at the cusp of a new era. However, for the time being, Google's resources would be put to better use by providing Africa with the means to build more classrooms and create jobs that will allow the next generation of young Africans to stay in school and acquire the digital, engineering, judicial and legal know-how Africa needs to compete in the 21st century. As Africa emerges from decades of post-independence malaise, corruption and war, digital networks alone are not enough.

Historian Ian David Stewart was a news correspondent and West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press. He is currently working on a new book about Africa in the 21st century.