Loon Photo

Africa ranked lowest in internet use last year, severely limiting the continent’s access to many of the digital solutions it needs during COVID-19. Looking to test technologies to close the divide, Loon (part of the Alphabet family that also includes Google) took to the skies, launching high-flying balloons to act as floating cellphone towers.

Completed in July with local telecom company Telkom Kenya, the project marks the first non-emergency use of Loon’s technology. The balloons—also called flight vehicles—have come a long way from early iterations involving beer coolers and wireless routers. The balloons in Kenya will deliver an initial service area spanning nearly 50,000 square kilometers (19,305 square miles) and have recorded downlink speeds of 18.9 megabits per second.

Although Kenya has a relatively high portion of connected users, service is spotty at best in rural areas. The project aims to provide a low-cost solution through a fleet of about 35 balloons that constantly hover above eastern Africa—roughly 20 kilometers (12 miles) high, cruising along stratospheric winds. Machine-learning algorithms that direct flight paths have evolved into complex navigation operations that provide sustained service to users. Individual balloons can alternate between providing direct internet connectivity, repositioning themselves to return to their respective service regions or acting as a link in the network to beam the internet to other vehicles.

Since teams began testing the service in Kenya, Loon has connected over 35,000 unique users, serving up internet-based voice and video calling, streaming and web connectivity. The project promises to deliver gains in education, health and agriculture, especially as Kenya’s leaders scramble to provide access to telemedicine and remote learning.

“The Loon service has the capacity to bring about positive impact— connecting targeted communities to emergency services, as well as ensure enhanced and alternative communication options during this time,” said Loon CEO Alistair Westgarth.

With almost half the world’s households still not connected to the internet, Loon is looking at other underserved markets. In November, the company unveiled a partnership with telecom company Internet para Todos Perú to provide service to people living in the Amazon rainforest this year. And just a few months ago, it inked a deal with Vodacom for a project in Mozambique, potentially allowing Loon to share vehicles with the Kenya team.