Internet enabled balloons will provide 4G coverage so people can make video calls, browse the web, send emails, text and stream video, in the first ever commercial deployment of this technology in Kenya.
The Loon project
Although announced two years ago, the Loon project, a unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has only just received final approval from the Kenyan government. It is now being fast-tracked to help improve communications during the current health crisis.
Stratospheric balloons began providing internet services in Kenya on 7 July 2020, extending online access to tens of thousands of people. The balls, made from polyethylene sheeting, are the size of tennis courts and are powered by solar panels and controlled by ground-based software. In the air, the balloons act as « flying relay antennas », transmitting Internet signals to ground stations and personal devices. They remain in the stratosphere for more than 100 days before they have to return to earth.
35 balloons to connect Kenya
Balloons are intended to provide countries with a cheaper option than laying cables or building mobile phone relay antennas by allowing telephone companies to extend their coverage where necessary.
The 4G LTE service will be provided to Telkom Kenya subscribers by a fleet of approximately 35 balloons, covering an area of approximately 50,000 square kilometres in the western and central regions of Kenya, including its capital, Nairobi. The project has so far been tested with 35,000 customers and has been successful, with a field test showing download speeds of 18.9 megabits per second and upload speeds of 4.7 megabits per second.
A crazy project ?
Loon (short for balloon and meaning « crazy ») started as one of Google’s flagship projects in 2011, as balloons had previously only been used in emergency situations. For example, they were used in Puerto Rico in 2017, after Hurricane Maria destroyed mobile phone towers.
This changed in 2018, when Loon partnered with Telkom Kenya to provide a commercial service, Kenya being the first country in which balloons were deployed in this way. According to Loon’s managing director, Alastair Westgarth, the current global health crisis has meant that they are working as quickly as possible to complete the service deployment. This is the culmination of years of work and collaboration between Loon, Telkom and the government.
A new era of communication
Some critics said that the project would have been better suited to another African country, as Kenya already has about 39 million connected people out of a population of 48 million. However, Loon’s leaders said they chose Kenya because of its openness to adopting new technologies, with Westgarth describing it as « the ideal place for us to enter this new era of stratospheric communications ».
In the future, Loon says it hopes to offer Internet connection as part of more commercial services worldwide, and has several other projects already underway. Not only does he plans to offer internet access in remote areas of the Amazon this year through a partnership with Internet Para Todos Perú, but he has also teamed up with AT&T to provide internet service to disaster areas and with Vodacom to provide internet to Mozambique.