Balloon-powered internet service goes live in Kenya

ISP Telkom Kenya is launching the first commercially available 4G LTE service using balloons that act as a network of cell towers floating in the stratosphere.

The service will initially cover approximately 19,000 square miles in Kenya, according to Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Loon, a spinout of Alphabet and the underlying technology provider. Roughly 35 or more balloons will comprise the fleet, moving continually, drifting in the stratosphere about 12 miles above the surface of the earth, Westgarth said in an article on Medium. “We refer to Loon as a floating network of cell towers,” Westgarth said.

Kenya is underserved by traditional internet, which is why this delivery mechanism is appropriate, said Mugo Kibati, Telkom Kenya’s CEO, in a press release. “… 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,” Kibati said. Telemedicine and online education are two expected use-cases.

In testing, Loon achieved a downlink speed of 18.9 Mbps with 19 milliseconds latency and an uplink speed of 4.74Mbps. Westgarth said the service is capable of being used for “voice calls, video calls, YouTube, WhatsApp, email, texting, web browsing” and other applications.

In the bigger picture, internet service delivery from the stratosphere is an attractive proposition for IoT. At altitude, network coverage footprints can be more widespread, and coverage can be shifted as demand changes—a mining area moves, for example. In addition, there’s less ground-based infrastructure to build out or deal with; developers can avoid the hassle of private property easements required for laying cables, for example.

Service outages are conceivably more controllable, too. A provider could launch another device instead of having to trace faults through elaborate, remote, ground infrastructure. Backup balloons could be staged, waiting to be placed into service.

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