Space offers high-speed net access to Africa

Greg Wyler, a US technology entrepreneur seeking a worthwhile project after selling his semiconductor cooling devices business, found himself in Rwanda two years ago, trying to bring internet access to one of Africa's poorest regions.

After rebuilding a communications tower at the top of the 15,000-ft Mount Karisimbi and laying a 450km fibre network to schools and universities, Mr Wyler realised that the problem was bigger than just connecting people's homes to the internet, it was more an issue of a lack of a telecommunications network to link the homes to.

"It's easy to build a WiMax [wireless data transmission] tower, but if you're 5,000 miles from a fibre network, you can't provide fast internet access," he says.

The solution was to move on from this network in Rwanda to an altogether more ambitious effort to rethink the telecommunications backbone in markets where a comprehensive fibre network will not make commercial sense for many years, if ever.

What started as a series of Powerpoint slides only began to gain momentum a year ago, when Mr Wyler caught the attention of John Malone's Liberty Global cable group, HSBC's private equity arm, and Google, the US search engine group.

Since then, the three partners have injected about $20m each, and raised a smaller sum from Allen & Co, the media investment boutique, to bring the project to a stage where it is ready to announce an order for the satellites that will form the network.

The partners have been attracted by a confluence of technology and demand which has made viable Mr Wyler's vision of using satellites instead of fibre to provide the "backhaul" connection between telecoms core networks and the cellphone towers springing up in even the remotest areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

By Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

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