Google's Loon launches service in Kenya

Loon says it's now providing service over a 50,000 square kilometer region to subscribers of Telkom Kenya.

Loon, the former Google X project and now independent Alphabet company, announced that its high-altitude broadband balloons have launched in Kenya. 

Loon says it's now providing service over a 50,000 square kilometer region to subscribers of Telkom Kenya, utilizing a fleet of around 35 balloons that are in constant motion in the stratosphere above eastern Africa.

According to Loon, early service quality testing has shown positive results, with over 35,000 unique users accessing the service for OTT voice and video calling, streaming, and web connectivity.

"What once seemed outlandish, is now proving my former self wrong with every person connected and every megabyte of data consumed from the stratosphere," said Loon's CEO Alastair Westgarth, in a blog post. "What we're seeing in Kenya today is the laying of the foundation for a third layer of connectivity. It was a long time in the making, and there is still a lot of work to be done to establish this new layer of connectivity. But today we're seeing the possibility of what the future can hold if we succeed."

Loon's business model is to partner with global telcos to expand Internet coverage to underserved areas. According to Loon, each of its balloons, from 20km above earth, can cover an area of about 80km in diameter and serve about 1,000 users on the ground using an LTE connection. However, Loon balloons need a backhaul connection from an access point on the ground in order to extend connectivity to users in places it doesn't exist.

In October 2017, Loon was granted permission by the US Federal Communications Commission to use its balloons to restore connectivity to Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The balloons were also used in 2017 when the El Nino floods devastated parts of Northern Peru, and again in 2019 when a 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit Peru.

The former X project was spun out as an independent company in 2018 alongside Wing, Alphabet's drone business. 

Since the beginning of this year, Loon secured approvals to fly over additional countries including Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Malawi, and Lesotho. The balloons are now approved to fly over 50 countries and regions around the world. The company is also currently working on adding ground installations in the Caribbean in response to the hurricane season. Loon has also formed a network partnership with AT&T that will make it easier for the company to provide internet connectivity over disaster zones.