Loon launches its first commercial balloon-based internet service in Kenya

Loon LLC, an Alphabet (Google) subsidiary working on providing Internet access to rural and remote areas, announced the launch of its first commercial Internet service based on floating balloons in Kenya in collaboration with Telkom (a telecommunications service provider in Kenya). After two years of preparations in Kenya, the commercial service has finally come to life.

The service will initially cover a region spanning nearly 50,000 square kilometers across western and central areas of the country with approximately 35 balloons. More than 35,000 unique Telkom customers will now have a 4G internet connection with the signals from the stratospheric balloons.

The high-altitude balloons in the stratosphere at an altitude of approximately 18 km (60,000 feet) are able to connect to the internet at 4.74 Mpbs uplink speed, 18.9Mbps downlink speed and 19-millisecond latency (ms). Thanks to these numbers, it is possible to use the service for applications such as email, web browsing, data calls, e.g. via WhatsApp, video calls, and YouTube.

Project Loon Internet-Balloon
Project Loon Internet-Balloon. Credit: loon

The balloons are located in areas of slow winds and are powered by an array of solar panels that sit between the envelope and the hardware. To avoid points of insufficient coverage or instability in the service, a system based on machine-learning algorithms guides the movement of the balloons.

Besides, the Loon network offers flexibility: it is possible to move balloons to areas that experience a sudden high demand or to replace a defective balloon.

However, you can’t say that the service will be functional all the time. Even with Loon’s advanced machine-learning algorithms that work to keep the balloons up, there are times when certain impediments such as wind patterns and restricted airspaces, could result in intermittent service availability.

Telkom executives use the Loon service for the first time in Radad, Kenya.
Telkom executives use the Loon service for the first time in Radad, Kenya. Credit: Loon

Loon has been working on deploying its first commercial service in Kenya since signing an agreement with Telkom Kenya in 2019. The pre-launch test in Kenya has already connected over 35,000 unique users in Kenya, but as the service was officially launched, that number is expected to grow considerably in the coming years. The company said that this project has become even more important since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it became possible to provide remote communication with doctors, family members, and other people, despite the restrictions on travel around the country.

Project Loon began as a research and development project by X (formerly Google X) in 2010. Later in 2018, the company was separated. And in July 2018, it entered into an agreement with Telkom Kenya to provide the first commercial internet service in Kenya.

In addition, the project’s balloons have already been used before, for example, to offer temporary internet access in the areas of Puerto Rico that were hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and later in 2019, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in Peru in May.

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