Alphabet launches balloon internet service in Kenya

Updated 09 Jul 2020

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Kenyan Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications Joe Mucheru uses his cell phone on the Loon technology internet to stream a live video call of Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta. —Reuters
Kenyan Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications Joe Mucheru uses his cell phone on the Loon technology internet to stream a live video call of Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta. —Reuters

BARINGO: Alphabet Inc began offering the world’s first commercial high-speed internet using balloons to villagers in remote regions of Kenya’s Rift Valley on Wednesday.

The service is run by Loon, a unit of Google’s parent Alphabet, and Telkom Kenya, the East African nation’s third largest telecoms operator.

“Kenya is the first country ... to have base stations high up in the sky. Now we will be able to cover the whole country in a very short span of time,” said Information Minister Joe Mucheru after launching the service.

The technology has been used before, but not commercially. US telecom operators used balloons to connect more than 250,000 people in Puerto Rico after a 2017 hurricane.

The project aims to provide affordable fourth generation (4G) internet to under-covered or uncovered rural communities. It has been more than a decade in the making.

“We are effectively building the next layer of the mobile network around the world. We look like a cell tower 20 km in the sky,” said Alastair Westgarth, Loon’s chief executive.

The floating base stations have a much wider coverage, about a hundred times the area of a traditional cell phone tower, Westgarth said. The large, translucent balloons are fitted with a solar panel and battery, and float in the upper atmosphere, high above planes and weather.

They are launched from facilities in California and Puerto Rico and controlled via computers in Loon’s flight station in Silicon Valley, using helium and pressure to steer.

They also have software equipped with artificial intelligence to navigate flight paths without much human intervention.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2020