A network of giant balloons will provide internet access to remote areas of Kenya.
The internet-enabled balloons will provide 4G coverage so people can make video calls, browse the web, email, text and stream videos in the first-ever commercial deployment of the technology.
Despite being announced two years ago the project, from Loon – a unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet – has only just received final sign-off from the Kenyan government. It is now being fast-tracked to help improve communications during the ongoing health crisis.
The high-altitude balloons started delivering internet service to Kenya on Tuesday, July 7, extending online access to tens of thousands of people.
The balloons, made from sheets of polyethylene, are the size of tennis courts and are powered by solar panels while being controlled by software on the ground.
While up in the air, they act as ‘floating cell towers’, transmitting internet signals to ground stations and personal devices. They last for over 100 days in the stratosphere before having to be returned to earth.
The balloons are intended to offer countries a cheaper option than laying cables or building cell towers by allowing phone companies to expand their coverage where needed.
The 4G LTE service will be provided to Telkom Kenya subscribers via a fleet of around 35 balloons, covering an area of around 50,000 square kilometres across western and central areas of Kenya – including its capital, Nairobi.
The project has so far been tested with 35,000 customers and has been successful, with one field test showing download speeds of 18.9 megabits per second and upload speeds of 4.7 megabits per second.
Loon began as one of Google’s ‘moonshot projects’ in 2011, with the balloons having previously been used only in emergency situations. For example, they were used in Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria wiped out cell towers.
This changed in 2018, when Loon teamed up with Telkom Kenya to provide a commercial service, with Kenya being the first country the balloons have been deployed in in this manner.
According to Loon’s chief executive Alastair Westgarth, the current global health crisis has meant they are ‘working as fast as we can to realise service deployment’, as per . ‘This is the culmination of years of work and collaboration between Loon, Telkom and the government,’ he added.
Telkom Kenya’s chief executive Mugo Kibati said it was ‘an exciting milestone for internet service provision in Africa’.
The internet-enabled balloons will be able to offer connectivity to the many Kenyans who live in remote regions that are under-served or totally un-served, and as such remain disadvantaged.
Some critics have said the project would have been better suited in another African country, because Kenya already has an estimated 39 million people online out of a population of 48 million.
However, Loon’s executives said they had chosen Kenya because of its openness to adopting new technologies, with Westgarth describing it as the ‘ideal place for us to begin this new era of stratospheric communications’, as per .
‘The country has been incredibly innovative about finding new ways to connect unconnected populations,’ he continued. ‘As a new, innovative technology, this is a great fit.’
Going forward, Loon says it hopes to offer internet connectivity as part of more commercial services around the world, and already has several other projects in the works.
Not only is it planning to offer internet access to remote parts of the Amazon this year via a partnership with Internet Para Todos Perú, but it’s also partnered with AT&T to provide internet service to disaster-stricken areas and with Vodacom to provide internet to Mozambique.