Loon, a company under Alphabet has launched a new internet service for communities in Kenya, using floating balloons. The project had further support from Telkom Kenya. Alastair Westgarth, the CEO of Loom, in a blog post, said that the 4G LTE service will be provided to subscribers of Telkom Kenya for now, via a fleet of around 35 balloons, covering an area of around 50,000 square kilometres across western and central areas of the country, including its capital, Nairobi.
According to Alastair, the project was motivated by Google X. In his words: “It was 2013 when I first heard about a crazy idea baked up in the labs of Google X to send balloons into near space to connect people in internet-less blank spots around the world. Frankly, I didn’t think it would work. It seemed too crazy, even for a company with a reputation for making the outlandish possible”.
The Loon balloons will work as mobile masts, travelling across different locations to enhance internet services for subscribers. These balloons have been prior tested during disasters like the Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and Peru earthquake in 2019. This is the first time the company is commercialising the product.
“While Loon is essentially a network of floating cell towers, there are some differences between the services we offer. The operative word is “floating,” which while giving short shrift to our advanced machine-learning algorithms, is important to (understand) the service that Loon provides. As our balloons or flight vehicles as we call them, float on stratospheric winds, they work together to provide coverage to areas below. Depending on their position, a flight vehicle can alternate between actively serving users, operating as a feeder link in our mesh network to beam the internet to other vehicles, or repositioning itself to get back to the service region. Still, other flight vehicles can be staged nearby (in stratospheric terms), waiting to enter the service region where they can begin providing connectivity. Even with this carefully choreographed and orchestrated balloon dance, there are times when the stratospheric winds, combined with other impediments such as restricted airspaces, constrain our ability to serve an intended region”.
“Early service quality testing has shown very positive results. In one late-June field testing session within the service region, we saw an uplink speed of 4.74Mpbs, a downlink speed of 18.9Mbps, and latency of 19 milliseconds (ms). In that and subsequent tests, the Loon and Telkom teams have used the service for all sorts of applications, including voice calls, video calls, YouTube, WhatsApp, email, texting, web browsing, and more.”
Loon intends to observe the success of the product in Kenya for now, but they have their eyes on global usage, using the Loon Balloons as a third layer of connectivity.