How a Kenyan Start-up Aims to Solve Africa’s Internet Problems with SupaBRCK

If you’ve ever tried to watch Netflix or scroll through Facebook outside of a major town in Africa, you’re having the typically poor online experience most Africans are familiar with. Internet connectivity is notoriously bad on this continent with 1.1-billion people, but even worse when your try access content that sits on a server somewhere in the United States or Europe.

And forget about streaming video, which last year accounted for 60% of all mobile traffic globally, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index report, and is expected to rise to 78% by 2021.

Until now, a ground-breaking new internet device holds the potential to give Africans as first-class an internet and content experience as anywhere in the developed world. Kenyan start-up BRCK today unveiled its latest innovation that can revolutionize how people access the internet’s rich repository, even in the most distant, unconnected areas.

Called SupaBRCK, it is an industrial-strength upgrade of the original BRCK launched in June 2014 that aimed to solve the thorny problem of poor internet access in Kenya. Episodic power failures meant modems were often destroyed by power surges when electricity returned, and regular WiFi-emitting dongles (called MiFi) couldn’t support enough devices and ran out of battery life before power resumed.

SupaBRCK, the next generation of the BRCK


But SupaBRCK is more than just a hardware router, it is also part of what the internet industry calls a content delivery network (CDN). These networks of servers host content (often called a cache) for Facebook, Netflix, YouTube and others. When you click on a Facebook or YouTube video, that triggers a request to the server and the video starts playing. If you’re on a fast connection in a major city such as Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg, that tends to be quite quick. But the further out of urban areas you travel, towards what the industry calls “the edge,” the slower – and more expensive – it gets. If that server is located in countries like Germany or the US, the connection is even slower.

SupaBRCK provides both the wireless signal and hard drive space to cache content on the actual device. That means a cellphone users connected to a SupaBRCK is watching videos stored on it, reducing the cost for cellular networks to stream it from a CDN somewhere else, and reducing the time it takes for the video to begin playing.

The impact of this is huge for Africa, most of whose inhabitants have mobile-only access to the internet. The cost saving is passed onto these consumers, who are using the WiFi signal emitted by the SupaBRCK and not much more expensive cellular data to browse the internet and social media.

‘SupaBRCK was born out of the need to solve the problems, not just of connectivity and power issues in Africa, but of edge computing and off-grid data storage,’ BRCK CEO Erik Hersman told me. ‘We started to realize how big of an issue this was shortly after we shipped our first products, so began thinking through a solution, both hardware and software, that would allow organizations to manage connectivity, power, computing and storage in an all-in-one device, designed for frontier markets, such as Africa.’

Encased in a weather and shockproof aluminium enclosure, SupaBRCK has 10-hours of battery life for power failures, has a 500GB hard disk that can be upgraded to 5TB and have several high-speed LTE/4G/3G GSM modems.

‘More than just a WiFi router, the SupaBRCK is effectively a rugged data centre in a single, solar-powered, all-weather box. The SupaBRCK board was designed in partnership with Intel and the same board has already been used as part of the Kio Kit product,’ says Hersman. The Kio Kit is part of the remarkable BRCK Education initiative that used a BRCK and 40 rugged tablets to provide school children with a multimedia-rich internet education.

Hersman – who is also the co-founder of real-time reporting software Ushahidi and Nairobi’s first and most successful co-working space and incubator iHub – understands just how hard it is to get good internet connectivity in Kenya and East Africa, where he has lived most of his life.

‘Internet access is really about two things; transmission of the internet connecting us with the rest of the world, and distribution of that connection to your phone or computer. We’re excited about what mobile operators, satellite companies, and even what the big internet giants like Facebook, Microsoft and Google are doing in Africa around this. However, they’re all transmission and it doesn’t solve our “last meter” problem of distribution to African internet users.

‘BRCK set out to solve this problem by first providing the hardware that works in low infrastructure environments, where we can’t rely on the power and where the internet connectivity might range between different inputs (SIM card, Ethernet, satellite, etc). We wanted to make a more reliable distribution point for the internet. We’ve also worked on the software side, creating cloud-based tools for device management as well as content syncing, all of this helps create a lower cost, more reliable and faster internet.’

Underlying the hardware is an operating system that was custom built for SupaBRCK that gives it the flexibility to control its own destiny, the amount of devices that can connect it, enabling larger drives, and add services. ‘Moja is key to it, and it’s where BRCK becomes a platform company, not just a hardware company any longer,’ says Hersman. ‘With Moja WiFi, we’ve created a way to provide real, free public WiFi and at the same time have created a system that businesses and content companies can use to access these same markets through Moja CDN.’

SupaBRCK, with its Moja CDN, will solve arguably the biggest headache for content distribution in Africa. ‘Most internet companies think of “the edge” as a data center, or content caching service, in a large city like Nairobi,’ Hersman told me. ‘They’re correct to an extent, but where they go wrong is thinking that the internet infrastructure for Africa is modelled like what you would find in the US or Europe. In Africa, as in most emerging markets, the issue is that your internet cables come into a country, do a fast local loop in the big city, where the CDN is also located, and the internet works fast there. 45 minutes away from the city you’re out of luck, the internet is slow, unreliable and more expensive.’

Key to solving this, BRCK has worked out, is thinking differently about hosting the content on the actual device. ‘If we want to solve the problem of internet in emerging markets, we need to think about the infrastructure of the internet itself differently – or, maybe we need to think of it as it was originally designed – truly distributed,’ Hersman told me. ‘To that end, BRCK started building a remotely-managed software platform that sits on top of the SupaBRCK, which turns each of these devices into a standalone microCDN – we call this platform Moja CDN. Where BRCK rolls these units out across towns and villages, public transportation and off-grid areas, then makes the Moja CDN service available to companies to purchase, just like you would do with Amazon’s AWS or Rackspace.

‘The idea of Moja CDN is to rethink Cloud infrastructure from the African context and locate small data centers off-grid, at the edge of the network. This Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), distributed network of servers and access points provides for an optimization of resource intensive media and mobile applications through a local Cloud.’

These could include ‘on-demand video services to public health applications like OpenMRS, the demand for responsive server infrastructure at the very edges of the network is significant and growing. Unfortunately existing data centre hardware could never survive in these environments and the business models for engaging with local communities are non-existent. BRCK solves both of these challenges through our ongoing efforts to rollout Moja and Moja CDN.’

SupaBRCK is the evolution of the very remarkable BRCK, including all the lessons learnt from providing quality education using BRCK Education. There is also the equally clever PicoBRCK, which is a smaller version aimed at providing Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity.

Kenya has long been known as the most innovative country for mobile ­– with its M-Pesa mobile money system that still accounts for the largest share of mobile transactions in the world – and SupaBRCK adds to that rich tradition.

Source: Forbes Magazine

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