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Accepted Paper:

Imagining and connecting the last mile in africa: balloons, drones, and rural base stations  
Miao Lu (Lingnan University, Hong Kong)

Short abstract:

This study aims to explore the different types of infrastructural imagination and techno-politics in the process of bringing last mile internet connections to rural Africa by focusing on two prominent projects —Huawei’s base station project “RuralStar” and Google’s internet balloon project “Loon”.

Long abstract:

Due to the lack of last-mile network infrastructure, rural Africa has been one of the least connected areas in the world. In recent years, multiple attempts have been made to connect rural Africa through various internet connectivity solutions, including balloons (Google’s Project Loon), drones (Facebook Aquila), and rural base stations (Huawei’s RuralStar). Designed by different tech companies, these infrastructure projects vary in terms of their scale, discourse, technical solution, and source of capital (Western, Chinese, and/or Africa), generating both failures and successes. When Google and Facebook shut down their last mile projects in the sky after several years, Huawei’s RuralStar— a lightweight base station solution — had been commercially used in more than 110 countries, mostly in Africa.

The proposed study aims to explore the different types of infrastructural imagination and techno-politics in the process of connecting rural Africa. Specifically, I focus on two prominent projects that have (once) been deployed on a large scale in rural Africa—Huawei’s base station project “RuralStar” and Google’s internet balloon project “Loon”.

Based on interviews, document analysis, and field trips to three African countries—Ghana, Togo, and Cote d'Ivoire, this study will (1) map the actor-networks around the infrastructure design and deployment, (2) analyze the narratives and socio-technical imaginations from diverse actors, and (3) theorize the different approaches of connecting rural Africa through last-mile infrastructure projects, paying attention to their promises as well as failures and contradictions. This study will contribute to the interdisciplinary area of STS, infrastructure studies, and critical media studies.

Traditional Open Panel P106
The promises and fractures of infrastructures: infrastructural imaginaries and the realities of our built world
  Session 2 Thursday 18 July, 2024, -