Loon, Google’s sister company, which provides rural and remote areas with internet access by high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere, has been granted regulatory approval in Kenya.
CEO Alastair Westgarth said the company will provide internet services in the country from balloons that will drift 20km above the earth. Loon signed an agreement with Telkom Kenya in 2017 to provide 4G connectivity to its subscribers.
Westgarth revealed that the process to install and connect the necessary terrestrial infrastructure is nearly complete and that the balloons would arrive in the east African country in the coming months. He noted that the initiative was being implemented with partners Telkom Kenya, Nokia and Liquid Telecom.
According to Westgarth, Loon’s balloons are the size of tennis courts, powered by solar energy, and steered by wind, moving up or down to catch different currents. Each balloon will stay airborne for more than 100 days and provide coverage of 5,000km².
In 2017, the company provided services over Peru and Puerto Rico after natural disasters in those countries wiped out cell towers. However, Kenya will be Loon’s first commercial launch.
The balloons will target areas where it is difficult for mobile operators to get a return on their investment, typically rural areas. Westgarth notes that this can boost economic growth by saying “a simple stat from the UN shows that if you connect a farmer to a broadband wireless connection, it can raise crop yields by 50 percent”.
The Chief Executive Officer said Loon has found a “very receptive audience” in Africa, where mobile broadband penetration remains low”. According to the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) data, just 21 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa had access to mobile internet in 2017. The number is expected to rise to 40 percent by 2025.
Westgarth notes Kenya is the company’s current focus, but said “we hope we can have other countries and operators in Africa as customers in the not too distant future. In 2019, we hope to have multiple operators running the Loon system”.
Loon, which was originally called Project Loon, was developed under parent company Alphabet’s research and development arm, X. Alphabet, which also houses Google.