Google’s high-flying balloons to provide Internet in Africa

Google’s high-flying balloons to provide Internet in Africa

Loon, spun out of the search giant’s X innovation lab in July, is teaming up with Telkom Kenya to build a network of high-flying balloons to connect people in the East African country starting next year. The prize for Alphabet, the parent of Google, is 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 modelled on technology used to temporarily connect people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last year knocked out power supplies and phone service. In Kenya, Loon says it will start with about a dozen balloons — enough to cover roughly 10% of the country — and gauge how many more are needed. Loon has 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.

“We’re turning what we have been working on for the past six years into a commercial operation,” says Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth. “We’ve proven we can do it at scale.”

The pumpkin-shaped blimps, almost as big as the bubble over a tennis court, ascend about 20km into the stratosphere, above planes, birds and storms. Westgarth says each carries “several tens of kilos” of routers, relays, batteries, antennae and other electronic gear, and can serve 5 000 square kilometers of land, or 30 times the area of a telecommunications tower.

Signals are 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. Loon declines to disclose costs, but says the technology is far cheaper than building power lines and towers to reach sparsely populated areas across difficult-to-access terrain.

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Google's high-flying balloons to provide Internet in Africa - TechCentral

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