By Lamar Johnson
- Alphabet’s “Loon” has partnered with a Kenyan internet provider
- The internet-providing hot air balloons were previously used in Peru and Puerto Rico
Loon officially moved from project-status to a full subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet (GOOGL +1.10%) on July 11. Its first task will be to use the internet-connectable high-altitude balloons to provide coverage to rural Kenya. The Alphabet subsidiary will team up with Kenya’s Telkom company to bridge an internet-connectivity gap in rural and suburban Kenya.
Why This Matters: With a population of over 45 million people, Kenya is the seventh-largest country in Africa and its eighth-largest economy. Though its metropolitan centers are well connected, there are still plenty of rural and suburban areas that remain without internet connectivity. The balloons are set to launch from the central mountains in Kenya next year.
The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Loon will partner with Kenya’s third-largest telecom provider to try to “create the first commercial mobile service … in Africa using Loon’s balloon-powered internet in Africa,” Telkom Kenya CEO Aldo Mareuse told Reuters. Previously, a Microsoft backed Kenyan startup had been using television frequencies to connect some of those communities.
While still under Alphabet’s X department, the research lab of the company and once called “Project Loon” was deployed twice after natural disasters to affected areas. The first live field test came in May 2017, after devastating floods in Lima, Peru. Loon was able to provide post disaster cell service to an estimated 25,000 square miles, according to the BBC. The balloons were subsequently also deployed in November 2017, after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and helped return service to an nearly 250,000 residents.
How does Loon work? The balloons are similar in practice to traditional weather balloons, floating at 60,000 feet above sea level, but offer fourth-generation (4G) wireless connectability and are steered by artificial intelligence. All of Loon’s deals require a telecom partner, allowing them to provide the same service consumers would get from typical masts, according to BBC.
Situational Awareness: This deal comes as a bigger win for Google just under a month after Facebook (FB +0.46%) shuttered its drone-internet program known as Aquila. In explaining the decision to the New York Times, Facebook’s director of engineering said designing their own aircraft became unnecessary as more companies got in the drone business. Google’s own attempt to provide internet via drone, dubbed Titan, was killed in 2016.
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