A fleet of giant internet-enabled balloons from Google’s sister firm Loon is now providing internet service in Kenya.
In a blog post announcing the developments, Loon’s CEO Alastair Westgarth said that the 4G/LTE service will be provided through Telkom Kenya, Kenya’s third-largest carrier, using a fleet of 35 ballons in an area that spans nearly 50,000 square kilometres across western and central parts of the country, including the areas of Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho, Narok and Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
This is a first in non-emergency use of Loon to provide connectivity on a large-scale basis, the first application of balloon-powered internet in Africa, and the first of what will be many commercial deployments around the world.
The company has previously provided internet connectivity in the emergence of disasters in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and after the 2019 earthquake in Peru.
The balloon internet has been on testing for several months connected 35,000 unique users to the internet delivering OTT voice and video calling, streaming, web connectivity, and more, “although most didn’t realize it,” According to the CEO.
In one of the field testing session in June within the service region, Loon indicates there was an uplink speed of 4.74Mpbs, a downlink speed of 18.9Mbps, and latency of 19 milliseconds (ms).
The balloons deployed by Loon are essentially a network of floating cell towers hovering at about 12 miles up in the stratosphere.
They float on stratospheric winds, they work together to provide coverage to areas below. Depending on their position, a flight vehicle as they are called can alternate between actively serving users, operating as a feeder link in our mesh network to beam the internet to other vehicles, or repositioning itself to get back to the service region.
The balloons are made from sheets of polyethylene and powered by solar panels and 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 can last for over 100 days in the stratosphere before being returning back to earth.
According to Loon, the service as a cost-effective solution in bringing internet access to people in underserved remote areas.
Cover Image Source: Alastair Westgarth