Google launches Telkom 4G internet balloon service

Telkom Kenya and Google subsidiary Loon have launched their internet balloon service, providing internet to rural areas of Kenya. The project has been some two years in the making and effectively provides a series of floating cell phone towers with a 4G internet connection.

“The Internet-enabled balloons will be able to offer connectivity to the many Kenyans who live in remote regions that are underserved or totally unserved, and as such remain disadvantaged,” said Mugo Kibati, Telkom Kenya’s CEO.

Tests of the balloons in late June resulted in download speeds of almost 19 Mbps and uplink transfers of 4.74 Mbps, with the connection tested for email, web browsing, WhatsApp video calls and YouTube.

Not just hot air 

The Loon balloons will start by covering a region of some 50,000 square kilometres, including the areas of Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho, and Narok.

The balloons do not remain stationary, but move according to the winds in any given area. The aim is to deploy the balloons in a network so that coverage can be maintained no matter what the weather and prevailing winds do.

They float well above the stratosphere, higher than commercial air traffic, between 18 to 23 kilometres above the earth’s surface.

When the balloons are taken out of service, the gas inside is released and a parachute is deployed to try and bring them safely back to ground.

The balloons carry two radio transceivers – one which transmits internet connectivity to a user’s phone, acting essentially as a cell phone tower, and another, connecting the balloons together and to internet infrastructure on the ground from which it picks up the connection to serve to users.

It is hoped that internet coverage and reliability will improve as Loon sends more balloons up into the Kenyan skies and gains more flight experience.

Telkom Service during daylight hours 

Customers will only get access to the internet via the balloons between the hours of 6am and 9pm since the technology relies on solar power.

“This is the culmination of years of work and collaboration between Loon, Telkom, and the government,” said Alastair Westgarth, Loon’s CEO.

Telkom Kenya and Loon say that the Covid-19 pandemic has made deployment of the balloons even more important, given the increasing need for online education and other services delivered via the web.

Eleven Loon balloons were visible on flight tracking service FlightRadar24 on Wednesday morning, floating in locations across Kenya.