How Google’s balloons are bringing internet to new parts of Kenya

There are nearly 4 billion people on earth who have no access to the internet and there are a multitude of reasons why this is the case, including any combination of the cost of infrastructure, remote dwellers, difficult terrains, the sheer limits of technology and many more.

Hundreds of millions of those people without access to an internet connection (and in some cases also lacking electricity) are found across Africa. It’s why two of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech firms, Google and Facebook have taken on a major infrastructure project to get more undersea internet cables to Africa. In the recent past Facebook has worked with local mobile phone companies to underwrite the costs of free internet access for African consumers. But it was criticized for being limited to mostly Facebook’s version of the internet.

Alphabet, which owns Google, is trying something far more eye-catching in East Africa through an idea that started in 2013 out of Google X, its so called “Moonshot Factory.” The idea was to send out balloons into space to connect people in difficult to reach areas of the world. After several trials it came to fruition this month in Kenya, now under the name Loon.

In partnership with Telkom Kenya, Loon technology has now launched with 35 balloons in constant motion above eastern Africa delivering mobile internet speeds of up to of 4.74 mbps uplink, and downlink speed of 18.9 mbps, and a latency of 19 milliseconds for everything from emails, web browsing, voice calls via WhatsApp and YouTube with up to 35,000 early users connected, according to the partners.

Telkom is Kenya’s third largest mobile network with around 4 million subscribers or 6{cb3fe4c54de06d7c4b8dceae281fb32e521027d1659af7adec2f427d2f5333d9} market share. It is currently in the process of trying to get a merger with the No.2 network Airtel Kenya, which has around 26{cb3fe4c54de06d7c4b8dceae281fb32e521027d1659af7adec2f427d2f5333d9} share. Both are way behind Safaricom’s 65{cb3fe4c54de06d7c4b8dceae281fb32e521027d1659af7adec2f427d2f5333d9}.

Prepare for take off.

Blown away

There are still limits to the availability of the new Loon service as it is subject to vagaries of wind speeds and directions among other things, but Loon is promising its advanced machine learning algorithms will soon be able to overcome some of these challenges as well as be boosted by the addition of more balloons for the region. But for now this means there may be service disruptions. Also, because the service is solar-powered, it’ll only be available between 6am to 9pm local time.

Loon’s service in Kenya will be away from Nairobi which is well-covered by other internet services, it will initially cover a region spanning nearly 50,000, including Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho, and Narok. The balloons which were launched from Puerto Rico and Nevada in the United States, didn’t necessarily take the shortest path to Kenya for safety, security and technical reasons.

The long route.

One way to think about Loon’s balloons is as “floating cell towers” which the company’s chief executive Alastair Westgarth says in a blog post makes the service “incredibly flexible” where other ground-based services might struggle for example in the event of emergencies. “That’s why we’re able to respond to natural disasters quickly, which we did in Peru last year when we began providing emergency service within 48 hours of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake.”

The hope is Loon could also help mobile network operator partners more easily cope with seasonal or fluctuating customer demand. A balloon can give coverage up to 200 times the reach of the average cellphone tower, according to Loon.

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