Rural Kenya in evening

Giant Loon balloons to deliver internet to rural Kenya

Image credit: Dreamstime

In its first commercial contract, Loon – formerly Google’s Project Loon and now a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet – will be delivering internet connectivity across rural Kenya.

The Loon company grew out of a 2011 project based at Alphabet’s experimental ‘moonshot’ laboratory, X (also known as Project X). Loon uses colossal floating balloons - much like weather balloons - equipped with antennae to relay internet signals from ground-based transmitters. This provides connectivity for thousands of square kilometres of land below each balloon.

The helium-filled balloons float in the highest levels of the stratosphere - approximately 20km above sea level - for months at a time, placing them out of the path of aeroplanes, storms and wildlife. The balloons are powered with solar panels, have no propulsion systems and instead travel by riding the wind, accounting for wind speed, direction and other factors.

Their longevity and mobility make these balloons best suited for providing connectivity in rural areas and at short notice, such as after natural disasters which disrupt telecommunications services across a region.

Now, Loon is close to securing a contract to fly enormous balloons over Kenya in order to widen internet connectivity. While Kenya’s urban centres are already well-served, the country’s rural areas are, by comparison, poorly served and will be targeted with the Loon project.

The expected agreement was announced by Kenya’s information and communications technology minister, Joe Mucheru.

“The Loon team are still working out contracts and hopefully once that is done, we can be able to see almost every part of the country covered,” Muncheru told Reuters.

Aldo Mareuse, chief executive of the South Africa-based telecommunications company, Telkom, which will provide the signals for Loon said: “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 further details of the agreement such as its timeframe or dollar value have been announced yet.

Some experts have warned that the growth of these contracts could facilitate the establishment of American communications monopolies in parts of Africa, given the current shortage of ground-based telecommunications infrastructure in the region.

Last year, Loon helped temporarily restore internet connectivity following severe, destructive flooding in Peru and following Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico.

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