A new era of stratospheric communications has begun, according to Loon, a company that offers a network of what it calls floating cell towers, and that is now providing service to subscribers of Telkom Kenya.
This is described as a first in many ways: not just the first application of balloon-powered internet in Africa, but the first non-emergency use of Loon to provide connectivity on a large-scale basis.
But will sending balloons into near space to connect people in internet-less blank spots around the world catch on? Will this be the first of many commercial deployments around the world, as Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth suggests?
In Kenya, the initial service region spans nearly 50,000 square kilometres across western and central parts of the country, including such areas as Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho and Narok.
But while early service quality testing is said to have shown positive results (the Loon and Telkom teams have used the service for such applications as voice calls, video calls, YouTube, WhatsApp, email, texting and web browsing), this is still only the start.
Plans are to utilize a fleet of around 35 or more separate flight vehicles that are in constant motion in the stratosphere above eastern Africa. The aim is to add balloons to achieve this target fleet size in the coming weeks; service availability will then become more consistent.
Of course, this initiative is still at a very early stage – and other companies are trying to develop remote connectivity solutions using high-altitude platform stations (HAPS) or low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites. However, Loon has achieved more than most of them already with an actual service launch in Kenya – and, based on the company’s announcement in May, Mozambique could be next.