Alphabet’s Loon to deliver balloon-based internet to Kenya

20 Jul 2018

Loon Balloon floating in the air. Image: Google

Alphabet’s Project Loon will work with Telkom Kenya to provide internet service to parts of the country starting in 2019.

Loon announced Thursday (18 July) that it would deploy its system of balloons to beam high-speed internet signal from Telkom Kenya to rural and suburban areas in the country.

After Puerto Rico was devastated by a hurricane last year, Loon partnered non-commercially with US telecoms companies to provide connectivity to more than 250,000 people.

The history of Loon

The company began its journey as ‘Project Loon’ way back in 2011 as part of Google X – the company’s moonshot idea incubator. Once Google restructured under parent company Alphabet, Google X rebranded as ‘X’.

Loon finally graduated from X this month, becoming an Alphabet company in its own right. Now it has already landed its first commercial deal with a Kenyan telecoms firm.

The deal with Telkom Kenya could see full internet coverage achieved and is due to commence next year. CEO of Loon, Alastair Westgarth, said: “Loon’s mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies.”

Head of Telkom Kenya, Aldo Mareuse, told Reuters: “We will work very hard with Loon, to deliver the first commercial mobile service, as quickly as possible, using Loon’s balloon-powered internet in Africa.”

No solid timeframe for deployment or details of the financial aspect of the deal has been released, but Telkom Kenya will provide the internet signal to be deployed in remote areas using the solar-powered balloons.

How do the balloons work?

The company’s technology has seen steady improvements since its initial foundation. It originally aimed to provide 3G connectivity but, in 2015, it progressed to providing 4G across large areas. The team also added that the balloons can remain airborne for six months or more at this stage.

The polyethylene balloons are around the size of a tennis court and each one can provide coverage of thousands of kilometres, according to Wired. They float at approximately 18,000m above sea level, much higher than wildlife, air traffic and bad weather events.

The balloons use wind patterns to reach their destinations and the company harnesses data and machine learning to create an air currents map of sorts.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects