Alphabet’s Loon division, which uses floating balloons to provide internet, has today in partnership with Telkom 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.
The giant internet-enabled balloons from Google’s sister firm Loon is to provide internet access to remote areas of Kenya. It will provide 4G coverage so people can make voice and video calls, browse the web, email, text and stream videos. 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.
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.
How the LOON service works and its expanse:
The LOON service will work by beaming Internet connectivity from ground stations to balloons 20 km overhead. The balloons (floating base stations) are linked to the ground stations that have been connected to Telkom’s network. These ground stations utilise millimeter wave spectrum to send connectivity from the ground to the balloons overhead. From there, a signal can be sent across multiple balloons, creating a network of floating base stations that will serve a wide coverage area, delivering connectivity directly to a user’s LTE-enabled device, below. Each balloon covers a large area—roughly 200 times greater than a ground-based system – which enables Loon to provide service to traditionally hard-to-reach or underserved areas.
Coming Back to Earth:
An important part of deploying the balloons is ensuring their safe and secure journey back to the ground. The successful landing of a balloon begins before it is even launched. In the weeks before a balloon is scheduled to come out of service (decommissioning), Loon and Telkom will work closely with local air traffic control officials and ground partners to finalise this plan and prepare for the actual descent and landing. Extensive planning goes into securing landing zones, training in-country recovery partners, coordinating with officials on landing and recovery procedures, and developing landing plans to bring a balloon safely to the ground. All of this preparation allows for a balloon to safely and efficiently land, when the time comes.
To begin the process, the lift gas keeping the balloon aloft, is released and a parachute automatically deploys to control the descent to the ground. While the balloon is descending, Loon’s flight engineers are in communication with local air traffic control to ensure real-time coordination. Landing paths are designed to avoid established commercial aircraft flight routes, and transit time through the altitudes where other aircraft might operate is very limited. Nonetheless, the balloon is also outfitted with an ADS-B transponder that makes it visible to aircraft in the vicinity. Guided to the ground by its parachute, the balloon lands at relatively low speed – around 20 km/hour, or about the speed at which a skydiver might land. The entire process from deflation to landing takes about 60 minutes. Once on the ground, specially-trained recovery teams collect the balloon and materials for analysis and recycling.
Landing zones for the Kenya deployment:
For the deployment of balloons in Kenya, it is anticipated that some of the balloons will be navigated to Australia for landing purposes. Recovery zones have already been established in Australia, with Loon landing and recovering many balloons there. Eventually, it is envisaged to begin landing balloons in Kenya, with the goal being to work with local partners around the country to ensure the safe and secure landing and recovery of the balloons. Telkom and Loon will determine landing areas in coordination with local partners and officials. Ideal landing and recovery zones are remote from both population centres and the flight paths used by commercial air traffic.