Technology

Internet signal-carrying balloons begin service in Kenya

Built by Loon – which is part of Google parent firm Alphabet – the balloons carry internet connectivity to rural areas lacking coverage.

High-altitude balloons carrying internet signal to rural areas are now being used commercially for the first time in Kenya, maker Loon has revealed.

The firm, which is part of Alphabet – Google’s parent company – is using its signal-beaming balloons to provide internet coverage to subscribers of Telkom Kenya.

It is the first non-emergency use of the balloons, which have previously been deployed in areas hit by natural disaster where internet infrastructure may have been knocked out.

The programme started as part of Google’s X lab of experimental technologies in 2013, before becoming its own company in 2018.

The high-altitude balloons use artificial intelligence to constantly track and respond to wind currents in the stratosphere in order to stay on course, with pumps fitted to each balloon which can inflate and deflate the device to move it up and down with favourable wind currents.

The firm has been testing its balloons in Kenya for several months, but chief executive Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post that the service had now gone live across an initial 50,000 square kilometres, using 35 balloons that are “in constant motion in the stratosphere above eastern Africa”.

He said the programme had already connected more than 35,000 unique users, with connection speeds in testing found to be capable of supporting not only voice calls and text messaging, but also video calls, web browsing and video streaming.

“While we refer to Loon as a floating network of cell towers, the reality is that we’re building something entirely new and different, and adding an exciting new component to the connectivity ecosystem,” Mr Westgarth said.

“Nearly 3.8 billion people, or about half of humanity, don’t have access to the internet, and many more lack what we would consider meaningful access. This has proven a tough problem to solve. Despite efforts by many, we’ve seen a dramatic slowdown in the growth of internet access in the last few years: from 19% in 2007 to less than 6% in 2018.

“And all of this is happening as the demand for connectivity is growing exponentially — and not just from people, but also from the internet-connected things that those people increasingly rely upon.

“To connect all the people and things that are demanding it now and into the future, we need to expand our thinking; we need a new layer to the connectivity ecosystem. And that’s exactly what Loon is building: a third layer to Earth’s connectivity ecosystem in the stratosphere.”

Having previously used the balloons to aid response to hurricanes and other natural disasters, Loon has said it hopes to establish its balloons as the third layer of connectivity alongside existing phone towers and satellites.

Loon is currently testing its balloons in Mozambique as well.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also currently developing its own internet connectivity solution, with the company having begun the launch of hundreds of small satellites as part of its Starlink programme, which aims to use those craft to beam internet connectivity back down to Earth’s surface.

“What we’re seeing in Kenya today is the laying of the foundation for a third layer of connectivity,” Mr Westgarth said.

“It was a long time in the making, and there is still a lot of work to be done to establish this new layer of connectivity. But today we’re seeing the possibility of what the future can hold if we succeed.”

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Technology