A high-altitude balloon floats over a remote area of New Zealand in this picture provided by Google, whose Loon project involves creating an airborne wireless network using balloons powered by the sun. Picture: REUTERS
A high-altitude balloon floats over a remote area of New Zealand in this picture provided by Google, whose Loon project involves creating an airborne wireless network using balloons powered by the sun. Picture: REUTERS

Loon, Google’s sister company, has finally been granted regulatory approvals in Kenya to provide internet services from balloons that will drift 20km above the earth, says CEO Alastair Westgarth.

The company signed an agreement with Telkom Kenya last year to provide 4G connectivity to its subscribers. Telkom Kenya competes with Vodacom’s associate in the region, Safaricom.

Westgarth said the process to install and connect the necessary terrestrial infrastructure — which was being done with partners Telkom Kenya, Nokia and Liquid Telecom — is nearly complete and that the balloons would arrive in the east African country in the coming months.

Kenya will be Loon’s first commercial launch, though last year  the company provided services over Peru and Puerto Rico after natural disasters in those countries wiped out cell towers.

The company’s balloons are the size of tennis courts, powered by solar energy, and steered by wind, moving up or down to catch different currents. Each balloon will stay airborne for more than 100 days and provide coverage of 5,000km², Westgarth said.

“The initial deployment will be around central Kenya. We’re co-ordinating with Telkom Kenya to find out where they want the coverage.”

The balloons will target areas where it is difficult for mobile operators to get a return on their investment — typically rural areas. This will boost economic growth, Westgarth said. “A simple stat from the UN shows that if you connect a farmer to a broadband wireless connection, it can raise crop yields by 50%.”

Westgarth said Loon is in talks with other operators in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The group has found a “very receptive audience” in Africa, where mobile broadband penetration remains low. Just 21% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa had access to mobile internet in 2017, according to the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) data. That number is expected to rise to 40% by 2025.

“Kenya is our number-one focus at the moment — we want to make sure it’s as successful as we can, but simultaneously we’re talking to people all around the globe,” Westgarth said.

“We hope we can have other countries and operators in Africa as customers in the not too distant future … In 2019, we hope to have multiple operators running the Loon system.”

Originally known as Project Loon, the technology was developed under parent company Alphabet’s research and development arm, X. Alphabet, which also houses Google, had a market capitalisation of $725bn on November 14 2018.

hedleyn@businesslive.co.za