No, it’s not the loonies, it’s balloons! In rural areas in Africa, internet service is still somewhat of a rarity, leaving many Africans disadvantaged. According to a 2019 report, only 28 percent of Africa’s 1.3 billion people have internet access. A new partnership between Google and Telkom Kenya is seeking to change that. Using a fleet of balloons, Project Loon will provide 4G LTE service over 50,000 square kilometers across central and western Kenya.
With plans to expand to cover more areas down the line, the project will start with 35 balloons floating 20 kilometers above the ground. This isn’t the first foray into balloon-powered internet by Project Loon. The balloons were previously successfully deployed in Puerto Rice after Hurricane Maria caused mobile network outages. While the Kenyan project has been in the works for a while now, the timeline was accelerated due to the Coronavirus pandemic and the global need for online connectivity.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in March that the project would “enable Kenya to retain her competitive advantage” in innovation and IT while allowing Kenyans to work and study from home during the health crisis. While the project has been widely lauded, some argue that people in poorer areas of Kenya aren’t able to afford the phones necessary to use the 4G service.
Kenya is something of an unusual choice for Project Loon, mainly because Kenya is already more connected than many other parts of Africa, with 39 million out of 48 million already having internet access. Google explains that Kenya is known for being innovative and was very open to adopting this new technology, making them a good place to start. In addition to the partnership with Telkom Kenya, Google will also be partnering with Vodacom to provide internet to Mozambique.
So how exactly do balloons provide internet service? Floating high above the commercial airspace, the balloons ride around on stratospheric winds in a constant state of motion. The balloons offer both direct internet connectivity in a similar way to a satellite and serve as a sort of connector to enhance and expand the ground network. Perhaps the biggest advantage to the Project Loon balloons is their affordability. It’s certainly a more cost-effective option than erecting cell towers or laying cable.