Giant Balloons Are Bringing Internet Access to Rural Kenya
Google’s sister company Loon is behind the initiative.
A network of enormous balloons will be bringing internet access to some of Kenya’s most inaccessible regions from as early as next year.
Google’s sister company Loon — owned by Google parent company Alphabet Inc. — is behind the initiative, partnering with Telkom Kenya to deliver 4G coverage to the country’s rural areas.
“Loon’s mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies,” said Alastair Westgarth, the chief executive of Loon, marking its first commercial deal in Africa.
The fleet of balloons — each reportedly about the size of a tennis court — will dangle antennae, and these will relay internet signals transmitted from the ground.
Loon has assured that the fleet will be floating far out of range of air traffic, storms, and wildlife, at a height of around 20 kilometers (60,000 feet or 12.4 miles) above sea level. Each balloon can reportedly provide coverage to an area of about 5,000 square kilometers.
US telecom operators first used the technology behind the balloons in the wake of a hurricane in Puerto Rico last year, according to Reuters, to provide internet to around 250,000 people.
The balloons will be powered by a solar panel, made from polyethylene, and will be filled with helium. They’ll also designed to float above the country for months at a time without having to land.
While Kenya’s major cities and towns already have internet, rural areas are much harder to reach.
But having internet access could be life-changing for those reached by the balloons’ connection. As of 2016, more than 4 billion people in the world — mostly in developing countries — didn’t have access to the internet.
And yet, advantages of an internet connection include far more than social media (which also has a lot of advantages in itself, such as sharing new ideas and providing a platform for voicing and combatting injustice). The internet helps people access financial services, as well as health and education facilities; it provides a greater platform for the development of small businesses or startups; and helps people communicate with family and friends, among many other things.
It also opens up a whole world of opportunity for apps to make people’s lives easier and safer — health workers have been able to track patients with Ebola to reduce the spread of the virus, for example. Nurses and health professionals can be trained more easily and more cheaply, and farmers are more easily able to manage their supply chains.
In fact, universal, affordable internet access is part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the ONE Campaign, and NGO, has a whole campaign dedicated to ensuring everyone can access the internet — particularly women and girls.
But the sheer size of Kenya’s rural areas has so far made internet access almost impossible, with fiber cables and mobile masts unable to cope with the large distances involved.
Experts have, however, raised some concerns about the balloon initiative leading to a monopoly on communications in rural areas that could leave people vulnerable to price hikes or changes in business strategy.
“Once these networks are in place, and dependency has reached a critical level, users are at the mercy of changes in business strategy, pricing, terms and conditions, and so on,” Ken Banks, an expert in African connectivity and head of social impact at Yoti, told the BBC.
“This would perhaps be less of a problem if there’s more than one provider — you can simply switch networks — but if Loon and Telkom have monopolies in these areas, that could be a ticking time bomb.”