There is no longer any doubt that high-altitude balloons can be used to provide cellular service to remote locations or places reeling from natural disaster.
The question for Loon — an Internet-providing balloon service owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company — is whether that technology is commercially viable.
The company appears poised to answer that question now that it has partnered with Telkom Kenya, the African nation’s third-largest carrier. The goal is to provide people living in isolated, mountainous portions of central Kenya the option to purchase 4G service at market-rate prices.
“We recently received approval to begin flying over Kenya and plan to dispatch balloons in the coming weeks for network integration testing with our partner Telkom," Loon spokesman Scott Coriell said. "Our goal is to launch commercial service in Kenya in the coming months, before the year’s end.”
Started in 2013, Loon set a goal of creating high-altitude, solar-powered balloons that provide WiFi connectivity to remote locations in developing markets. The effort is an ambitious one. The company’s balloons take the most essential components of a cell tower — redesigned for lightness and durability — and hoist them more than 12 miles above the Earth’s surface to the edge of space.
But the sophisticated technology is not without limitations. Though multiple balloons can supply 4G to thousands of devices over an area about as large as Connecticut, the service can be interrupted by strong winds or a lack of sunshine, Reuters reported.
That would conceivably leave “large chunks of the United States, Europe, China and southernmost South America and Africa off limits. And using balloons too close to cities could jam other communications,” according to Reuters.
“In addition,” Reuters added, “the balloons each cost tens of thousands of dollars and must be replaced every five months as their plastic shells degrade.”
Despite those limitations, the 200-person company has been deploying its technology in remote regions for years, most recently in Peru.
After a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck remote parts of Peru’s Amazon region in May, Loon dispatched a group of balloons to the impacted area, the company’s CEO, Alastair Westgarth said in a statement at the time. About 48 hours after the disaster struck, the balloons were providing people on the ground with wireless broadband communication. To get the service up and running, Loon partnered with the multinational telecommunications and mobile network provider company Telefónica.
In his statement, Westgarth said that this isn’t the first time the company has intervened after a disaster. In 2017, he noted, Loon responded to flooding in northern Peru and later that year provided service to Puerto Ricans devastated by Hurricane Maria.
“What is different this time is the speed with which we were able to respond,” Westgarth wrote. “In Puerto Rico, it took about four weeks for our balloons to begin providing service. In this instance, we were able to begin providing service in about 48 hours, because we had already deployed the building blocks of the Loon network.”
Despite the heavy investment in places like Puerto Rico and Peru, neither effort was commercial. Reached by email, a company spokesperson said Loon was not compensated by the Peruvian government or by Telefónica, but acknowledged, at the time, that the company was working with Telefónica “toward a commercial arrangement that would bring Loon to Peru on a sustained, non-emergency basis.