Google Project Loon Finally Approved For Kenya Deployment

A Loon balloon prototype is shown at launch. Credit: Alphabet

Two years after deal was first signed, Project Loon is approved by Kenyan government for 4G connectivity via high altitude balloons

The first ever commercial deal of Alphabet’s moonshot project, known as Project Loon, has finally be given the official go ahead.

It has been a long timing coming, as it was back in July 2018 that Alphabet had first signed the deal with Telkom Kenya, that would beam high speed internet into large rural regions of Kenya from the upper atmosphere.

Since that time Project Loon has been deployed to other parts of Africa. In May this year, Alphabet’s Loon division signed a deal with South African mobile operator Vodacom to deliver high speed internet into two rural provinces in Mozambique from the upper atmosphere.

A Loon internet access balloon is shown preparing for launch. Credit: Alphabet

Kenya deployment

Project Loon has been developed by Google ever since 2011, and despite the Kenyan deal being signed two years ago, final sign-off from the Kenyan government has only just been given.

The project will see a network of giant solar-powered balloons provide 4G coverage so people can make voice and video calls, browse the web, email, text and stream videos.

The news was confirmed in a blog post by Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth.

“Today, we get to build on that progress with the announcement that Loon is now providing service in Kenya to subscribers of Telkom Kenya,” wrote Westgarth. “This is a first in many ways: the first non-emergency use of Loon to provide connectivity on a large-scale basis, the first application of balloon-powered internet in Africa, and the first of what will be many commercial deployments around the world.”

The tech was used by American telecom operators to provide connectivity to more than 250,000 people in Puerto Rico after a hurricane in 2017 for example.

Project Loon has also been used to restore Internet in Peru after the earthquake there in 2017 and it has also been tested in countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

“In Kenya, our initial service region spans nearly 50,000 square kilometers across western and central parts of the country, including the areas of Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho, and Narok,” wrote Westgarth.

“To cover this area, we’ll utilise a fleet of around 35 or more separate flight vehicles that are in constant motion in the stratosphere above eastern Africa,” he wrote. “As we continue to add balloons to achieve this target fleet size in the coming weeks, service availability will become more consistent.”

Speedy connections

He said that 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),” wrote Westgarth. “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.”

He added that many Kenyans had already been connecting to the internet through a balloon – although most didn’t realize it.

“Since we began early tests, we’ve connected over 35,000 unique users, delivering OTT voice and video calling, streaming, web connectivity, and more,” wrote Westgarth. “In fact, we were able to capture some video of a few of these Telkom users as they first experienced balloon-powered internet in Radad, Kenya, where they used the service to show a couple of our Loon team members around via Google hangout.”

Alphabet had spun off its two research projects, Wing and Loon, into separate companies under the Alphabet umbrella back in July 2018.

The projects had started off as “moonshots” under Alphabet’s X research division, but the company said at the time they were ready to become early-stage companies

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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