Google’s Loon project delivers internet to Kenya – via balloon

Clare Hopping

20 Jul, 2018

Google’s Loon internet service that aims to deliver high-speed internet to rural areas has signed its first commercial agreement, partnering with Kenya’s Telkom network.

The connection will be delivered by high altitude balloons that float 20km above sea level. They’re designed to deliver internet connectivity to low density populations, where it’s just not financially viable to install traditional underground cabling and other permanent lines to properties.

The balloons are essentially floating cell towers, utilising a provider’s 4G/LTE service to a user’s existing device. They’re powered by solar panels, so can just float continuously and will rarely need to be taken out of service.

“We are extremely excited to partner with Telkom for our first engagement in Africa,” said Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth. “Their innovative approach to serving their customers makes this collaboration an excellent fit. Loon’s mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies. We couldn’t be more pleased to start in Kenya.”

However, some critics have suggested the partnership will lead to a monopoly in Kenya, dominating the internet market and warning those most affected will be the consumers.

“Once these networks are in place, and dependency has reached a critical level, users are at the mercy of changes in business strategy, pricing, terms and conditions and so on,” Ken Banks, an expert in African connectivity, and head of social impact at Yoti told the BBC.

“This would perhaps be less of a problem if there’s more than one provider – you can simply switch network – but if Loon and Telkom have monopolies in these areas, that could be a ticking time bomb.”

Loon and Telkom plan to launch the internet service next year (although this is subject to regulatory approval) and Telkom’s boss Aldo Mareuse explained the telecoms business is committed to rolling out the service as quickly as possible.

“Telkom is focused on bringing innovative products and solutions to the Kenyan market,” he said. “With this association with Loon, we will be partnering with a pioneer in the use of high altitude balloons to provide LTE coverage across larger areas in Kenya. 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.”