Balloon-Powered Internet Comes to Africa

Alphabet’s Loon just launched internet services in Kenya

Jul 23, 2020

Look up at the sky in Kenya and you will see a remarkable sight. Flying high in the stratosphere are 35 balloons but they are not there for recreational rides. The balloons are part of an initiative by Loon, to provide internet connections in Kenya.

Loon, which is part of Google’s parent company Alphabet, is collaborating with Telkom Kenya, one of the country’s largest internet carriers according to The New York Times. The recently launched balloons will provide 4G LTE connections in western Kenya. The initial service area spans almost 50,000 miles.

“This is the first nonemergency use of Loon,” said the company’s CEO Alastair Westgarth, in a blog published by The Medium. The company has provided temporary internet services in Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria and in Peru in 2019 after an 8.0 magnitude earthquake.

Loon tested this method for over two years before starting this venture in Africa which has the lowest percentage of internet users in the world due to lack of infrastructure. That’s why this floating network of what is essentially cell towers is a low-cost alternative to building ground infrastructure.

The balloons consist of giant sheets of polyethylene that are as large as tennis courts, according to the NYT, and are solar powered. They are expected to last for more than 100 days before returning to earth

“Kenya is an ideal place for us to begin this new era of stratospheric communications,” Westgarth, told NYT in an interview.  “The country has been incredibly innovative about finding new ways to connect unconnected populations. As a new, innovative technology, this is a great fit.”

There are already 35,000 users who have used the service to stream videos, searched websites, emailed, and used applications like WhatsApp. In tests that were done earlier, Westgarth said in his blog, there was an uplink speed of 4,74 Mbps and a download speed of 18.9Mbps.

But he doesn’t see the loon balloons as a replacement for ground-based infrastructure. “We envision a similar, layered approach to connecting the world. Terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based technologies will all work together to serve different parts of the globe and use-cases,” Westgarth wrote.

“The key will be coordinating these various solutions so they provide a seamless connection. With the technologies we’ve built, Loon is well positioned to play this role and serve as the operating system for the global connectivity ecosystem of the future.”

Kenyan authorities told NYT that the balloons will help the country with technical innovation. Bringing WIFI to rural areas will help students in school, empower women, and make the country more competitive in business. All of this makes the future look a lot brighter for this African nation.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.