In a first, Alphabet-owned Loon recently began beaming commercial internet service from balloons over the African nation of Kenya. The balloons, roughly the size of a tennis court, provide 4G coverage that will allow people to browse the web, make voice and video calls, text, email, and stream videos.
The balloons have been used in the past during disasters, such as in 2019 after an earthquake in Peru and in 2017 in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. However, this is the first time they’ve been used to provide commercial service. The balloons are launched in the U.S. and find their way to the stratosphere over Kenya using air currents. When they arrive, they are over 12 miles above land and are constantly in motion.
The service has already been tested with 35,000 customers and it covers an area of 19,000 square miles. Those tests showed 18.9 megabits/second download speed and 4.7Mbps upload speed. Loon will soon send 35 of the solar-powered balloons to eastern Africa.
Working with Telkom Kenya, the project was announced two years ago. However, it was only recently that they received approval from the Kenyan government. Mugo Kibati, CEO of Telkom Kenya, described the new service as “an exciting milestone for internet service provision in Africa.”
"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," he added.
The lockdown created by the COVID-19 pandemic increased the urgency of the project because the need for internet access has surged. Still, Africa, with the most young people in the world, has long been in the sights of tech companies. Only a little over 25% of Africa’s population currently has access to the internet.
Alastair Westgrath, CEO of Loon, acknowledged the seemingly futuristic aspects of the project.
“While this sounds like a far-off, science-fiction future, it’s not. Just look to Kenya,” he said in a blog post. “What once seemed outlandish, is now proving my former self wrong with every person connected and every megabyte of data consumed from the stratosphere. What we’re seeing in Kenya today is the laying of the foundation for a third layer of connectivity.”
Loon began in 2011 as one of Google’s “moonshot projects.” Alphabet is the parent company of Google.