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Alphabet’s Loon & Telkom Kenya Get Approval To Launch Balloon-Based 4G Internet Service In Kenya

During this afternoon’s COVID-19 (coronavirus) address by President Uhuru Kenyatta, he announced that as one of the measures being taken manage the negative impact of the virus is that Alphabet’s Loon has been given regulatory and cabinet approval to launch their service in Kenya in partnership with Telkom Kenya. To provide some context, Google is also owned by Alphabet.

Loon is expected to commence operations in Kenya within the next few weeks according to the update I received a short while ago. Loon and Telkom Kenya are also working with Nokia and Liquid Telecom to install ground stations in Nairobi, Nakuru and Nyeri (initially) and these are expected to be expanded to other areas across the country in due course.

The way that Loon works is that it’s a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space that is able to deliver broadband Internet connectivity to people in unserved and underserved communities around the world. Loon partners with mobile networks like Telkom Kenya to expand the reach of their 4G service by expanding coverage to places that lack it.

Loon is designed to function autonomously if required, routing connectivity across balloons and ground stations while taking into account balloon motion, obstructions, and weather events. A Loon balloon carries the equivalent of a cell tower 20 km above the earth and is designed to cope with extreme stratospheric conditions where winds can reach 100 km/hr, and temperatures can drop as low as -90° C.

The kind of engineering and technology required to make Loon work is clearly on the very cutting edge. Let’s just say it takes rocket science to make Loon do what it does! Given that Loon is part of the Google collective, it has the resources to create something so innovative and potentially revolutionary for underserved parts of the world where the Internet is still hard to access, often slow and relatively very expensive.

I have to admit that this is massive news given that many parts of the country simply do not have access to 4G-grade Internet for a whole bunch of logistical and practical reasons. Therefore, Loon will potentially close a big gap in providing high-speed internet access nationwide so as to level the playing field for many Kenyans who hitherto have lacked access to an Internet that enables a truly digital lifestyle.

One thing that will be essential is the cost of Internet access delivered via Loon and Telkom Kenya needs to be as affordable as possible, or, even free for it to really take off in rural Kenya where poverty levels tend to be the highest. The other barrier to adoption could be access to mobile devices that support the 4G service at affordable prices that enable many Kenyans to get connected, possibly, for the very first time.

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