Alphabet's Project Loon debuts commercial deployment in Africa

A Project Loon balloon being launched.
A Project Loon balloon being launched.

Telkom Kenya is the first African telco to sign a commercial deal with Loon, a subsidiary of Alphabet that is using large balloons to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas.

The companies announced this week a definitive agreement to pilot an innovative 4G/LTE access network service in Kenya, with service expected to begin next year.

Kenya Telkom has no affiliation to the South African Telkom.

Loon recently graduated from Alphabet's X, the company's innovation lab, becoming an independent business within Alphabet.

"Loon's mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies. We couldn't be more pleased to start in Kenya," said Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth.

Loon technology was used by US telecoms operators last year to provide connectivity to more than 250 000 people in Puerto Rico after a hurricane hit the island.

The Kenya pilot will take place within the general area of central Kenya, some of which has been difficult to service, due to mountainous and inaccessible terrain. The exact coverage areas will be determined in the coming months, and subject to the requisite regulatory approvals.

Earlier this month, Kenya's ICT minister Joe Mucheru said the government was holding talks with local telecoms operators on the deployment of the Loon technology.

He said he hoped the system of balloons would help provide high-speed Internet connection to more of Kenya's rural population.

With more than 45 million people, Kenya's major cities and towns are covered by operator networks, but vast swathes of rural Kenya are not covered.

Speaking at AfricaCom in Cape Town last year, Westgarth said the company was looking specifically to work with operators in Africa.

"We have been testing the wind currents and the winds in Africa since the beginning of this year and we really look forward to, hopefully, working with some of the operators here to figure out how to extend their networks to provide connectivity to their unconnected folk.

"Approximately half the world does not have ready access to broadband and that is even worse in remote communities, where it is one in three. That's a serious problem that we need to address," said Westgarth, speaking about why Alphabet decided to take on the project.

The balloons are the size of tennis courts and one can be launched every 30 minutes, Westgarth said. The team co-ordinates with local air traffic control as the balloon transits from the launch site up to 60 000 feet (around 20 kilometres) to make sure it doesn't cause any issues with aviation or air traffic. This height is above sea level, well above air traffic, wildlife, and weather events.

One balloon can provide coverage of up to 5 000 square kilometres, which is twice the size of Cape Town and the surrounding areas.

The balloons are also self-sustaining. They are solar-powered and have a battery so they can operate at night.

"We have created a network of balloons that fly 20km in the sky and effectively work as a really tall tower. People often say that's a long way away, but when there is nothing blocking the signal, you can connect directly to a 4G handset; there is no intermediary required," said Westgarth.

"With the software we have developed at X, we can steer these balloons. We can send them to different altitudes when the wind is going different directions. With this same software, we can cluster the balloons together, hang them over a specific spot and provide prolonged coverage in a specific area."

Rival tech giant Facebook also had plans for connecting the world's most rural areas with solar-powered drones.

Named Aquila, the unmanned high-altitude, long-endurance solar airplane was designed to beam connectivity to regions over 95km in diameter, using laser communications and millimetre wave systems.

However, last month Facebook said it decided not to design or build its own aircraft any longer, and to close its facility in Bridgwater.

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