Kenya is now the first country to provide internet through 4G balloons. Loon - a unit of Google's parent company, Alphabet - has just received final sign-off from the Kenyan government. The internet-enabled balloons will provide 4G coverage so people can make video calls, browse the web, email, text and stream videos in the first-ever commercial deployment of the technology.
The high-altitude balloons started delivering internet service to Kenya on Tuesday, July 7, extending online access to tens of thousands of people. The project has so far been tested with 35,000 customers and has been successful, with one field test showing download speeds of 18.9 megabits per second and upload speeds of 4.7 megabits per second.
The balloons are made from sheets of polyethylene and are as big as a tennis court. These machines are powered by solar panels while being controlled by software on the ground. While up in the air, they act as 'floating cell towers', transmitting internet signals to ground stations and personal devices. They last for over 100 days in the stratosphere before having to be returned to earth.
The 4G LTE service will be provided to Telkom Kenya subscribers via a fleet of around 35 balloons, covering an area of around 50,000 square kilometres across western and central areas of Kenya - including its capital, Nairobi.
Loon began as one of Google's 'moonshot projects' in 2011, with the balloons having previously been used only in emergency situations. For example, they were used in Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria wiped out cell towers. This changed in 2018, when Loon teamed up with Telkom Kenya to provide a commercial service, with Kenya being the first country the balloons have been deployed in in this manner.
Some critics have said the project would have been better suited in another African country, because Kenya already has an estimated 39 million people online out of a population of 48 million. However, Loon's executives said they had chosen Kenya because of its openness to adopting new technologies.
Going forward, Loon says it hopes to offer internet connectivity as part of more commercial services around the world, and already has several other projects in the works.