Google’s High-Altitude Internet Balloons Could Soon Connect Rural Kenya

A Project Loon balloon.

A Project Loon balloon. Wikipedia Commons

If implemented, the project could have the potential of extending online connectivity to thousands of people across Kenya.

Google is in talks with telecom operators in Kenya to bring balloon-powered internet to people in rural and remote areas.

Through its Project Loon, which was created by its innovation lab Alphabet X, the company said it was negotiating with mobile operators to deploy a network of balloons across Kenya. The solar-powered balloons, which rise 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the stratosphere above commercial airplanes, transmit internet signals to ground stations, homes, and personal devices. The talks were also confirmed by the Kenyan government, with ICT minister Joe Mucheru telling Reutersthe Loon team was “working out contracts” with local telcos.

If implemented, the project could have the potential of extending online connectivity to thousands of people across Kenya. With over 46 million people, internet connectivity has continued to grow in Kenya, mostly through mobile data subscriptions. More than 43 million Kenyans have mobile phone subscriptions, with 33 million of those having data subscriptions as of Dec. 2017, according to the Communications Authority of Kenya. The East African nation also has one of the world’s fastest mobile internet speeds.

But that isn’t the case in many places across Africa, where the question of internet availability and affordability is an issue many governments are yet to critically address. Even as nations laud the transformative power of the internet, Africa is the region with the lowest levels of internet users in the world at just 22%. Besides, many countries, including Kenya, continue to fall short of financing projects aimed at removing barriers to internet access in rural and poor urban areas—sometimes even when they have those funds.

To address this gap, many global companies have entered the business of beaming the internet from low-orbiting satellites or high-altitude drones and balloons. Besides Project Loon, these include Facebook (Aquila), Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and OneWeb, which is backed by business magnate Richard Branson. Last year, Facebook also partnered with local internet providers and carriers to launch its low-cost Express Wifi program in a number of countries including Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria.

These projects are, however, never without their own problems. Last month, Facebook abandoned its high-altitude project Aquila namely because of competition from other companies developing next-generation technologies. As for Google’s Loon: during a trial period last year, one of the balloons crashed in a khat farm in eastern Kenya, with farmers threatening to sue Google for damages.