Alphabet’s Loon division, which uses floating balloons to provide internet, has today launched its first commercial service in Kenya. In a blog post announcing the news, Loon’s CEO Alastair Westgarth said that 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 kilometers across western and central areas of the country, including its capital, Nairobi.
It’s a significant step for Loon, which started as a moonshot project in Alphabet’s X division before being spun out into its own company in 2018. The company’s balloons have already provided internet connectivity in the wake of disasters, like in Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria or in Peru after an earthquake in 2019, but never as part of a large-scale commercial deployment.
Loon has been testing its balloons in Kenya for several months now, and it says that in that time, it’s already connected 35,000 unique users to the internet, “although most didn’t realize it.” The company says that it achieved a downlink speed of 18.9Mbps back in June, along with an uplink speed of 4.74Mbps and a latency of 19ms, and that it’s tested a range of services — including email, voice and video calls, web browsing, WhatsApp, and YouTube viewing — on its service.
The company’s balloons (or “flight vehicles” as it calls them) hover at a height of roughly 20 km, analyzing the weather to ride around on stratospheric winds. Individual balloons can alternate between providing internet connectivity directly and acting as a link in the mesh network. The New York Times notes that they stay up in the air for over 100 days before coming back down to earth. Loon says the aim of its balloons isn’t to replace satellite connectivity or ground-based technologies like cell towers or fiber optic cables, but to offer a “third layer” of connectivity to help get more people connected to the internet worldwide.
However, the Times reports that the company has been criticized for launching its balloons in parts of the country that already have developed internet infrastructure and that some people in poorer areas of Kenya can’t afford the phones needed to connect to its 4G service.
Going forward, Loon says it hopes to offer internet connectivity as part of more commercial services around the world. It also has several other projects in the pipeline. It plans to offer internet access to remote parts of the Amazon this year via a partnership with Internet Para Todos Perú, and it’s also signed an agreement with Telesat to use its networking software to manage the company’s low Earth orbit satellites. Finally, it’s partnered with AT&T in preparation to use its balloons to provide internet service to disaster-stricken areas and with Vodacom to provide internet to Mozambique.