Loon's balloons are ideal for providing wireless coverage for areas where building cell towers isn’t easy.
Just a few days ago, Loon seemed like a pie-in-the-sky, sounds-cool-but-will-never-work dream. After all, the idea sounds fantastical: antennas attached to giant balloons floating in the stratosphere, beaming Internet down to Earth below. But now Loon – which just so happens to be owned by Google parent Alphabet – has its first commercial partner. And thanks to Telkom Kenya, they’ll be providing wireless Internet service to rugged central Kenya as early as next year.
While financial details haven’t been disclosed, it is the first commercial deal for Loon. The way the balloons work is pretty straightforward, albeit ingenious: antennas hang from giant, tennis court-sized helium balloons, which can float almost 20,000 metres above the ground – higher than even commercial airplanes and weather systems that could cause the balloons to crash. Made of polyethylene that’s just 0.076 millimetres thick, a single balloon can provide wireless Internet for an area of thousands of square kilometres – not to mention stay aloft for months at a time. In other words, they’re an ideal solution for providing wireless coverage for areas where building cell towers wouldn’t exactly be the easiest, be it due to challenging terrain or climate, political instability, or other challenges.
The balloons navigate using only the wind because they lack a propulsion system, though they do have a fan that can raise and lower them. To make sure they don’t drift too far, Loon uses large amounts of data and machine learning to understand air currents, which can be used to essentially drift about in only a specific area.
The agreement with Telkom Kenya brings to an end speculation about which of Kenya’s four mobile operators Loon would partner with, speculation which began with comments by Kenyan Communications Minister Joe Mucheru to Reuters earlier this month that Alphabet technology would be used to provide rural connectivity in the East African nation.
In a statement, Telkom Kenya said the plan is for the balloons to be aloft and for service to begin by 2019. Telkom Kenya CEO Aldo Mareuse said the operator will work with Loon to “deliver the first commercial mobile service” using the balloons.
Central Kenya was chosen as a location because, according to Telkom Kenya, the area is a challenging one to provide service to due to its mountainous and inaccessible terrain.
In acknowledging the deal, Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth praised Telkom Kenya’s “innovative approach to serving customers.”
So far, Loon’s balloons have provided emergency Internet coverage in areas affected by natural disasters, such as Peru following flooding in early 2017 and in Puerto Rico following a hurricane that same year. The balloons have also been tested in places such as New Zealand’s South Island.