A network of giant internet-enabled balloons from Google’s sister firm Loon is to provide internet access to remote areas of Kenya.
Loon previously used balloons during an earthquake in Peru.
The project was announced two years ago but final sign-off from the Kenyan government was only recently given.
It is now being fast tracked to help improve communications during the coronavirus pandemic.
The balloons will provide 4G coverage so that people can make voice calls and video calls, browse the web, email, text and stream videos.
The balloons’ 4G internet service has been tested with 35,000 customers and will initially cover a region spanning 50,000 kilometres.
The 35 solar-powered balloons will be in constant motion in the stratosphere above eastern Africa. They are launched in the US and make their way to Kenya using wind currents.
One field test of the service showed download speeds of 18.9Mbps and upload speeds of 4.7Mbps.
Loon began as one of Google’s so called “moonshot projects” in 2011. Google teamed up with Telkom Kenya in 2018 to provide a commercial service.
According to Loon’s chief executive Alastair Westgarth, the spread of COVID-19 has meant they are “working as fast as we can to realise service deployment.”
“This is the culmination of years of work and collaboration between Loon, Telkom and the government,” Westgarth said.
Telkom Kenya’s Mugo Kibati said, “It is an exciting milestone for internet service provision in Africa. The internet-enabled balloons will be able to offer connectivity to the many Kenyans who live in remote regions that are under-served or totally unserved, and as such remain disadvantaged.”
Critics said it would have been better in another African country because Kenya already has an estimated 39 million out of a population of 48 million people online.