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February 11, 2022

I tuned in to the Olympics yesterday to see luge relay, an event I didn't know existed. I was thinking, "Wow, the baton exchange must be tricky." (Turns out it's just really a team event where they add up everyone's time.) Happy Friday!

Today's newsletter is 1,153 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Bringing more internet to Africa

Collage of Cassava Technologies CEO Hardy Pemhiwa next to some ethernet cables
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Courtesy Cassava Technologies

Much of Africa has gotten a taste of the internet thanks to cellular technology, but high-speed access remains scarce on the continent thanks to a lack of consumer spending power and a fractured, unreliable power grid. Cassava Technologies, a spinout of an African telecom firm, aims to change that equation.

Why it matters: Africa is home to 54 countries and 1.3 billion people and covers an area larger than India, China and Western Europe combined. That's too big a chunk of the planet to be stuck with spotty, expensive internet access.

  • "It's 54 different countries with different languages and different ways of working, different regulatory environments," says Hardy Pemhiwa, Cassava's CEO.

Flashback: In 1993, three quarters of people in Africa had never heard a phone ring. The mobile revolution was a game-changer — bringing not just the first opportunity for regular access to phone calls, but also basic access to the internet for many.

The big picture: Much of the continent now has cellular access. But expanding to high-speed internet service has been a challenge.

  • One key is making the economics work. Across the continent, 85% of people earn less than $5.50 per day, per the World Bank, while in sub-Saharan Africa, 40% of people take home less than $2 a day.
  • Reliable power is another issue. Utility companies have struggled to provide consistent access to power and where it is available it is costly, Pemhiwa says, adding that in many countries 12-hour blackouts are common and even in places such as South Africa multi-hour disruptions still occur
  • The result is that less than 40% of Africans have steady internet access due to either availability or cost.

Enter Cassava, which last year was spun out of Econet, one of Africa's large cellular providers. The firm has businesses doing everything from laying fiber and building data centers to offering mobile payments and cybersecurity services.

  • Cassava is also building Sasai, a "super app" it hopes will play a role in Africa akin to WeChat in China.
  • "Our vision is a digitally connected future that leaves no African behind," Pemhiwa said.

Between the lines: The big U.S. tech companies also see the opportunity. "When you are thinking about the next billion users of internet, where are you going to go?" Pemhiwa said. "Africa has to be part of your plan."

But many tech companies have struggled to build significant business in Africa. Cassava aims to offer a way for them to shift from philanthropic endeavors and pilot programs into a real business. The company has tried to become a bridge, laying fiber cable and building data centers while working with U.S. tech giants to build on top of services from Microsoft, Google, Amazon AWS and Facebook.

  • "We are the go-to partner of choice," Pemhiwa said.

What's next: While Cassava is privately held, there was a report from Bloomberg last year that the company was in talks with a blank-check acquisition company to go public in a deal valuing it at more than $4 billion. Pemhiwa acknowledges that Cassava's vision will require more investment.

  • "That vision requires capital and we are constantly reviewing our options as to sources and instruments we can use to raise capital," he said.

2. U.S. testing border patrol robot dogs

A robot dog overlooking the U.S.-Mexico border.
A robot dog overlooking the U.S.-Mexico border. Courtesy: Ghost Robotics

Robot dogs could soon help patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, Axios' Russell Contreras reports.

Why it matters: Both political parties have long said U.S. Customs and Border Protection needs more technology to monitor the 2,000-mile terrain, but some Democrats and advocates say the border is already overly militarized.

Driving the news: A research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced last week it has been working with the Philadelphia-based company Ghost Robotics to develop a robot dog for the border.

  • The dogs can transmit real-time video and other data back to human operators while climbing over sand, rocks and hills.
  • The project has been under development for two and a half years. It's unclear how many robot dogs will be deployed, when and where to.

"We are trying to keep CBP and other government personnel in the field out of harm's way," Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh told Axios.

  • The robots can explore confined spaces and have long-range and night vision cameras, Parikh said.

Yes, but: Robot dogs are controversial.

  • The use of one for a hostage situation at a public housing building in Manhattan caused a fierce backlash among residents and politicians who saw it as alienating and a waste of taxpayer money.

What they're saying: "It is really sad to see how much money has been invested in military technology to seal the border," Fernando García, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights, told Axios.

  • "You don't see an effort to really change immigration policy that would actually fix the broken systems."

But the use of high-tech robot dogs along the border probably isn't violating any constitutional rights, Michael Olivas, the emeritus William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center, told Axios.

  • The CBP has introduced all sorts of new technology along the border, from small drones to airplanes equipped with high-tech sensors. Case law has protected the use of such technology, Olivas said.
  • "In fairness, if there are people who are lost in the Sonoran Desert, these can also be lifesaving."

3. Quick takes: EARN IT act advances

1. The Senate passed landmark workplace legislation on Thursday that forbids companies from forcing sexual harassment and assault claims into arbitration.

  • Between the lines: Proponents of the legislation included a number of tech whistleblowers including Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks.

2. The EARN IT act, which removes tech platforms' immunity for violations of laws related to online child sexual abuse material, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday.

  • Yes, but: The controversial bill still faces a battle to garner approval form the full chamber, with several senators expressing concern and more than 60 human rights groups warning the bill will do more harm than good.

3. Apple plans to make further changes to its AirTags in order to prevent people from being unknowingly tracked via the products, which are meant to keep tabs on keys and wallets, not people.

  • Why it matters: Stalkers and domestic abusers have found ways to harness all manner of technology — and product trackers, by their nature, raise particular concern.

4. Take note

Trading Places

  • LendingClub named Balaji Thiagarajan as its new chief technology officer. He was previously in a variety of technology roles at companies including Uber, Oracle, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.  

ICYMI

5. After you Login

This piece is satire from The Onion, but hits a nerve for those who have been bemoaning the influence of whataboutism in AI Ethics.