Alphabet’s Loon division, which uses floating balloons to provide the Internet, launched its first commercial service in Kenya on Tuesday,media The Verge reported. In a blog post announcing the news, Loon’s chief executive, Alastair Westgarth, said 4G LTE services would be available to Telkom users in Kenya through about 35 balloons, covering an area of about 50,000 square kilometres in the western and central parts of the country, including its capital, Nairobi.
It was an important step for Loon, which started out as a lunar probe project in Alphabet X and then split into its own company in 2018. The company’s balloons have provided Internet connections in the wake of the disaster, such as Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 or Peru after the 2019 earthquake, but have never been part of a large-scale commercial deployment.
Loon, who has been testing balloons in Kenya for months, says it has connected 35,000 independent users to the Internet during that time, “even though most people don’t realize it.” The company said it had achieved 18.9Mbps downlink speeds, 4.74Mbps upstream speeds and 19ms latency as early as June, and that it had tested a range of services on its services – including email, voice and video calls, web browsing, WhatsApp and YouTube video playback.
The company’s balloons (or “aircraft”) hover at an altitude of about 20 kilometers, analyze the weather and gallop in stratospheric winds. A single balloon can alternate between providing an Internet connection directly and a link that acts as a mesh network. The New York Times notes that they will stay in the air for more than 100 days before returning to the ground. Loon says the balloon’s goal is not to replace satellite connectivity or ground technology, such as cellular towers or fiber optic cables, but to provide a “third tier” of connectivity to help more people around the world connect to the Internet.
However, the New York Times reported that the company has been criticized for launching balloons in parts of the country that already have a well-developed Internet infrastructure, and that some in poor areas of Kenya cannot afford the mobile phones needed to connect to its 4G service.
Looking ahead, Loon says it wants to offer Internet connectivity globally as part of more commercial services. The company is also working on several other projects. Loon plans to provide Internet access to remote parts of Amazon this year through a partnership with the Internet Para Todos Per?, and it has also signed an agreement with Telesat to use its network software to manage the company’s low-Earth orbit satellites. Finally, Loon is working with AT?amp;T to use its balloons to provide Internet services to the affected areas and with Vodacom to provide Internet services to Mozambique.