American tech giant, Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company) is spreading internet connectivity to rural and remote communities across Africa using balloons under its Loon project. Launched in 2013, Loon uses a network of balloons that carry solar-powered equipment in the sky to send high-speed Internet signals to the ground.
The balloons are designed to stay around 20 kilometres (km) above sea level – well above airplanes, wildlife, and weather events – for 100 days before landing back on Earth in a controlled descent. After its flight, a parachute automatically deploys to guide the balloon safely back.
Each balloon carries an antenna that relays internet signals transmitted from the ground extending coverage over an area of 5,000sq km using 4G internet. A group of Loon balloons creates a network that provides connectivity to people in a defined area similar to how a group of towers on the ground forms a terrestrial network.
Over the past few years, Loon has been holding trials in several African countries and has over- flight arrangements with Nigeria, Botswana, South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo Republic and Mozambique.
Loon partners with mobile network operators globally to expand the reach of their LTE service. It recently got approval from the Kenyan government to commence tests after reaching an agreement with Telkom Kenya to provide 4G to remote areas.
“Together, we help expand coverage to places that lack it, supplement existing networks, and provide expedient coverage after natural disasters,” the company says on its website.
In its latest partnership on the continent, the company has agreed to provide Internet access in rural Uganda, according to Anna Prouse, Loon’s head of government relations. But it is in search of a local telco partner to start operations.
“Our balloons will need to connect to physical cell towers of an operator in order to send a message to other balloons so that people in that area can be connected,” said Prouse.
According to reports, Loon has started gathering wind data to understand how to navigate over Ugandan skies before starting commercial agreements. During the trials, the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) would be “notified of the flights on an ad hoc basis,” said UCAA Director-General, David Kakuba.
With billions of people around the world still without internet access, the goal is to deliver connectivity to people in unserved and underserved communities globally.
Particularly in Uganda, broadband connectivity is very limited. Only 45 percent of the country had 3G coverage on mobile devices as of 2018, according to the National Information Technology Authority.
Being able to connect to the internet is crucial for rural dwellers, with both short and long term economic benefits. Firstly, it allows them to buy goods and services that may not be available locally while they can market their own goods and services to a much larger audience.
Internet connectivity also means they can connect remotely with health services that previously required driving for several hours and even telecommute.
More so, access to broadband leads to more new businesses in rural areas, resulting in increased median household incomes and lower unemployment levels for rural residents. In the long run, these contribute to economic growth, increased per capita income, and even Gross Domestic Product (GDP).