Loon, whose technology even its current CEO doubted was going to work, is now providing service to subscribers of Telkom Kenya.
In testing the service leading up to the launch, many Kenyans already had begun getting connected to the internet through a balloon, although most didn't realize it, according to Loon. Since early tests began, Loon has connected more than 35,000 unique users, delivering OTT voice and video calling, streaming and more.
Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said the launch in Kenya is a first in many ways: the first non-emergency use of Loon to provide service on a large-scale basis, the first application of balloon-powered internet in Africa and the first of what promises to be many commercial deployments around the world.
Westgarth said it was 2013 when he first heard about the crazy idea concocted in the labs of Google X to send balloons into near space to connect the unconnected. “Frankly, I didn’t think it would work,” he wrote in a blog. “It seemed too crazy, even for a company with a reputation for making the outlandish possible.”
Loon engineers learned a lot in the intervening years, including how to use automated machines to launch balloons 60,000 feet into the air and to do so once every 30 minutes. Machine-learning algorithms are used to navigate the balloons and provide sustained service to users on the ground.
Loon’s strategy is to partner with telecom service providers in the markets where it launches, and in South Africa, Telkom Kenya is one of its partners.
Loon’s initial 4G service in the region spans almost 50,000 square kilometers across western and central parts of the country, including the areas of Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho, and Narok.
To cover the area, Loon is using a fleet of around 35 or more separate flight vehicles that are in constant motion in the stratosphere above eastern Africa. “As we continue to add balloons to achieve this target fleet size in the coming weeks, service availability will become more consistent,” Westgarth wrote.
In one late-June field testing session within the service region, they saw an uplink speed of 4.74 Mpbs, a downlink speed of 18.9Mbps, and latency of 19 milliseconds. In that and subsequent tests, the Loon and Telkom teams have used the service for all sorts of applications, including voice calls, video calls, YouTube, WhatsApp, email, texting, web browsing, and more, he said.
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Loon started out as a project within Google and graduated to be its own independent business within Alphabet in 2018.