Alphabet’s Loon goes live over Kenya

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A subsidiary company of Google/Alphabet is now beaming the world’s first commercial high-speed internet access from a balloon.

The service went live on July 8th over Kenya and in particular allowing users in the country’s Rift Valley to tap into broadband via Telkom Kenya and the Project Loon balloons.

“Kenya is the first country […] to have base stations high up in the sky. Now we will be able to cover the whole country in a very short span of time,” said information minister Joe Mucheru after launching the service.

Loon’s balloons have been used before but usually in test mode and to serve regions devastated by hurricanes and similar natural disasters. For example, some 250,000 people used Loon in Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricane wiped out the terrestrial infrastructure.

“We are effectively building the next layer of the mobile network around the world. We look like a cell tower 20km in the sky,” said Alastair Westgarth, Loon’s chief executive.

The Loon balloons initially cover around 50,000 sq kms in the western and central parts of Kenya. The company says it will take a fleet of about 35 balloons to serve the complete nation and they will arrive in the coming weeks.

In the past would-be internet users have had to travel up to 60 kms to the nearest town to obtain a broadband service.

“What once seemed outlandish, is now proving my former self wrong with every person connected and every megabyte of data consumed from the stratosphere. What we’re seeing in Kenya today is the laying of the foundation for a third layer of connectivity,” said Westgarth.

The internet service has already been used by Kenyans for voice calls, video calls and for using apps like YouTube and WhatsApp, Loon said. One internet speed test in the country demonstrated a download speed of 18.9 Mb/s and upload speed of 4.74 Mb/s.

Westgarth added that Loon, which also has a deal to roll out the service with Vodacom in Mozambique, has seen increased interest from operators and governments after the coronavirus crisis forced people to rely on the Internet more heavily. “It has really accelerated existing discussions,” he said.


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