Loon’s deployment in Kenya is getting closer to takeoff as the company has started installing ground infrastructure and secured all the regulatory approvals required to begin initial testing in the first half of 2019.
Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth made the announcement at AfricaCom 2018, which is being held in Cape Town this week.
Loon’s strategy is to partner with telecom service providers in the markets where it launches, and in South Africa, that partner is Telkom Kenya. Ground stations have been installed in Nairobi and Nakuru. From these structures, internet connectivity is beamed up to a balloon 20 km (about 12 miles) overhead.
“Together with Telkom Kenya, we have been working in close collaboration with the Kenya Communications Authority, Civil Aviation Authority, and others to secure the needed approvals to usher in Africa’s first-ever deployment of this innovative solution to connect unconnected and under-connected communities,” Westgarth said in a statement. “We are grateful to these agencies for their support, collaboration, and innovative approach to expanding connectivity.”
The Kenya Communications Authority explained that it granted the requisite approvals to the two entities for deployment of internet services using Loon’s balloon-powered technology on a trial basis, and it encourages other industry players to leverage new and emerging technologies to roll out ICT services, particularly in remote and rural parts of the country.
Westgarth, whose previous work includes stints at Quintel, Tango Networks, Airspan Networks and Nortel, joined X in early 2017 and was appointed CEO in July of that year. This past summer, Loon dropped the “Project” from its name, becoming an independent company within Alphabet. As Loon, its mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating “audacious technologies.”
Indeed, people thought the idea of using balloons to deliver internet was crazy, but engineers kept at it, perfecting the technology, which has been used to help recovery efforts after at least two natural disasters—in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and before that, in Peru.
Loon describes its “secret sauce” as the ability to bring the internet from where it exists now to where people need it without the difficulty and expense of building a lot of new ground infrastructure in between. It’s basically addressing backhaul, where the backhaul connection jumps from one balloon to the next, forming point-to-point links to transmit data between balloons.
The distances between balloons are large, which means the hardware and algorithms that point the links must be both very accurate and precise, noted Loon Head of Engineering Salvatore Candido in a Sept. 11 blog post. That task is complicated by the fact that the balloons are constantly shifting position relative to one another as they ride wind currents in the stratosphere.
Engineers experimented over time with a number of ways of getting balloons to talk to one another and at one point sent the movie "Real Genius" between two balloons 60 miles apart using free space optics. (Real Genius is a 1985 film with Val Kilmer about building sky-high lasers.)
Loon figures it can cover a lot more people by passing connections across its network of balloons; each balloon is capable of passing the connection to other balloons while simultaneously using it to connect users on the ground. Instead of one balloon using one ground-based connection point to serve users, it can use the same terrestrial access point to activate a network of multiple balloons, all of which can connect the people below.