On Wednesday, July 8th, American tech giant Alphabet Inc. launched the world’s first commercial high-speed internet using balloons to villagers in remote regions of Kenya’s Rift Valley. The internet service is run by Loon, a unit of the Google parent company, and Telkom Kenya, the country’s third-largest telecoms operator.
With more than a decade in making, the project aims to provide affordable fourth-generation (4G) internet to under-covered or uncovered rural communities in Kenya.
At the launch of the internet service, Kenya’s Information Minister Joe Mucheru noted that Kenya was the first African country to have base stations high up in the sky. “Now we will be able to cover the whole country in a very short span of time,” he said.
Alastair Westgarth, Loon’s chief executive said the company is effectively building the next layer of the mobile network around the world. “We look like a cell tower 20 km in the sky,” he said. In December last year, Alphabet announced plans to spread internet connectivity to rural and remote communities across Africa using balloons under its Loon project.
The floating base stations have much wider coverage, about a hundred times the area of a traditional cell phone tower. The large, translucent balloons are fitted with a solar panel and battery, and float in the upper atmosphere, high above planes and weather.
The balloons also contain software that is equipped with artificial intelligence to navigate flight paths without much human intervention. They are launched from facilities in California and Puerto Rico and controlled via computers in Loon’s flight station in Silicon Valley, using helium and pressure to steer.
According to Westgarth, Loon is also planning to roll out the internet service in Mozambique in partnership with Vodacom. The country has seen increased interest from operators and governments after the coronavirus crisis forced people to rely on the internet more heavily.
Internet balloons have been used before, but not commercially. United States telecom operators used balloons to connect more than 250,000 people in Puerto Rico after a 2017 hurricane. Access to broadband in rural communities across Africa could lead to new businesses which creates an increase in household incomes for residents.