Google’s Project Loon has launched its first set of internet balloons in remote areas of Kenya. The East African country becomes the first in the continent to have balloon-powered internet and the first non-emergency commercial deployment in the world, according to the statement issued by Project Loon and Telkom Kenya.
The companies said that pioneering technology to customers is now on course for this month and will continually improve the technology to progressively offer better experience to customers.
“Telkom and Loon are proud to announce the availability of mobile internet service via the Loon technology to Kenyans, starting July 2020. This important milestone comes as the project partners approach the completion of their network integration tests that have seen them successfully assess service quality across their infrastructure and respective networks,” Telkom and Loon said in a statement.
The service is targeted at the underserved and unserved Kenyans. It will cover a region of about 50,000 sq.km of rural Kenya including Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho and Narok.
The project has been in trial for years now, as part of Google’s effort to provide internet for rural Africa.
According to the statement, in one of the field’s testing last June, Loon and Telkom registered an uplink speed of 4.74 mbps, a downlink speed of 18.9 mbps, and latency of 19 milliseconds (ms). The internet speed was tested through the use of email, web browsing, data calls, video calls and social media apps.
Telkom’s Kenya CEO, Mugo Kibati said it’s a milestone that will help Kenyans living in remote regions to enjoy the internet.
“This is an exciting milestone for internet service provision in Africa and the world, more so that the service will pioneer in Kenya. This being a purely data service and with the continued migration of communication towards data-supported platforms, the internet-enabled balloons will be able to offer connectivity to the many Kenyans who live in remote regions that are underserved or totally unserved, and as such remain disadvantaged.
“This new technology will also complement Telkom’s ongoing strategy to further widen our network coverage, enabling us realize our brand promise; to be Kenya’s preferred data network,” he said.
Alastair Westgarth, Loon’s chief executive said the support of government agencies in Kenya made the project a dream come true.
“We could not be more excited to launch service in Kenya. This is the culmination of years of work and collaboration between Loon, Telkom, and the government. Without the support and engagement by various governmental stakeholders who helped usher in Africa’s first application of this innovative technology,” he said.
The balloons are made from polyethylene sheets and are about the size of tennis courts. They are being launched from locations in the United States and navigated to Kenya through wind currents in the stratosphere.
Africa has a massive population of people who have no access to the internet. According to a 2019 report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, only 28% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people has access to the internet.
In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic that has stifled traditional practices and forced activities to go virtual, the need to serve the unserved has become greater. Online education and the digitization of telemedicine are becoming priorities for many countries, as part of the new normal. To achieve that, stable internet service is needed in remote areas.
“In light of the spread of COVID-19, Telkom and Loon are working as fast as we can to realize service deployment. This will also enable us support the Kenyan Government’s efforts to manage the current crisis in the short-term, and to establish sustainable operations to serve communities in Kenya in the long-term.
“The Loon service has the capacity to bring about positive impact; connecting targeted communities to emergency services, as well as ensure enhanced and alternative communication options during this time,” Westgarth added.
The statement explained that the Loon service works by beaming internet connectivity from ground stations to balloons 20 km overhead. The balloons are linked to the ground stations that have been connected to Telkom’s network. The ground stations use millimeter wave spectrum to send connectivity from the ground to the balloons overhead.
However, there are challenges. Loon acknowledged that impediments like the wind patterns and restricted airspace may hinder internet service. And because the balloons are solar-powered, users will only have the 4GLte internet service from 6: 00 am to 9: 00 pm. But the companies hope that the technology will get better as they gain more experience flying in Kenya, and dispatching more balloons to the service region.
Google and Facebook have been working on undersea internet cables to provide internet access to remote places in Africa. While that is yet to materialize, the Loon balloon project has offered a faster alternative that the company hopes to extend to other African countries.