It has always been a big challenge to bring fast, widespread internet to rural Africa, with the hope of connecting it to the rest of the world! Many companies have tried—and largely failed—with strategies ranging from drones to satellites. Now, a sister company of Google and subsidiary of Alphabet Inc, Loon LLC, says it has the answer: Balloons! Baffled? Just stay with me.
I’m sure most of y’all would have heard about Project Loon! Loon is a network of stratospheric balloons designed to bring Internet connectivity to rural and remote communities worldwide. Loon, spun out of the search giant’s X innovation lab in July, is teaming up with Telkom Kenya Ltd. to build a network of high-flying balloons to connect people in the east African country starting next year.
What’s in it for Alphabet Inc ? The opportunity to profit from advertising and other businesses tied to bringing the web to more of sub-Saharan Africa, where hundreds of millions of people lack net access!
Loon’s Kenyan project is pretty similar to the technology that was used to provide temporary connection to people in Puerto Rico last year, after hurricane Maria knocked out power supplies and phone service. In Kenya, Loon has planned to start with about a dozen balloons—enough to cover roughly 10 percent of the country—and gradually figure out how many more are needed. Loon has already begun work with the operator to install ground stations in Nairobi and the city of Nakuru in the western highlands that will beam signals to the balloons.
How does Loon work?
The pumpkin shaped structures would ascend to about 20 kilometres into the stratosphere, above planes, birds and storms! Yeah, that’s a long way up folks! And each of this is going to carry several tonnes of kilos of routers, relays, batteries, antennae, and other electronic gear, and can serve 5,000 square kilometres of land, or roughly 30 times the area of a telecommunications tower. Crazy, right?!
Signals are then beamed up to the balloons, which can relay them back to devices below or pass them on to other balloons. The balloons have solar panels to recharge their batteries and can stay aloft for several months before they must be brought down for servicing. As of now, very little is known about the cost, but Loon says the technology is far cheaper than building power lines and towers to reach sparsely populated areas across terrains that are difficult to access.
Loon’s design places a balloon within a balloon. The outer bag is inflated with helium to provide lift, and the inner is filled with air—which is heavier—that is added or released to control altitude. Loon can fine-tune the location of a balloon by raising or lowering it to catch winds moving in different directions at various layers of the stratosphere.
Loon joins a long line of ambitious projects aimed at helping the Africans. Facebook Inc. in June ditched a program to build passenger jet-sized drones to deliver Internet because global aviation and spectrum regulations don’t support the system. Hopefully, if all goes well, Loon might just create a global network of “floating cell towers in the sky”, with the whole world connected!