NAIROBI, Kenya — A fleet of high-altitude balloons started delivering internet service to Kenya on Tuesday, extending online access to tens of thousands of people in the first-ever commercial deployment of the technology.
The balloons, which hover about 12 miles up in the stratosphere — well above commercial airplanes — will initially provide a 4G LTE network connection to a nearly 31,000-square-mile area across central and western Kenya, including the capital, Nairobi.
Loon, a unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, launched 35 balloons in recent months in preparation for Tuesday’s start. It is collaborating with Telkom Kenya, the East African nation’s third-largest carrier.
The balloons had previously been used only in emergency situations, such as in Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria wiped out cell towers.
Loon bills the service as a cost-effective solution to the difficult challenge of bringing internet access to people in underserved remote areas. The Kenya venture is being closely watched by telecom providers in other countries as a test of whether the technology is reliable and the service can be profitable.
Some technology experts have said the balloons would be better deployed elsewhere. Kenya already has far more of its citizens connected to the internet, an estimated 39 million out of 48 million people, than many other countries in the developing world.
But Loon’s leaders, who inaugurated the balloon service after two years of testing, said they had chosen Kenya because of its openness to adopting new technologies.
“Kenya is an ideal place for us to begin this new era of stratospheric communications,” Alastair Westgarth, Loon’s chief executive, said in an interview conducted by email. “The country has been incredibly innovative about finding new ways to connect unconnected populations. As a new, innovative technology, this is a great fit.”
The balloons, made from sheets of polyethylene, are the size of tennis courts. They are powered by solar panels and controlled by software on the ground. While up in the air, they act as “floating cell towers,” transmitting internet signals to ground stations and personal devices. They last for well over 100 days in the stratosphere before being returned to earth.
By allowing phone companies to expand their coverage where needed, the balloons are intended to offer countries a cheaper option than laying cables or building cell towers.
This could be effective in Africa, where just over 28% of the continent’s 1.3 billion people were using the internet in 2019 — the lowest rate in any region worldwide — according to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency. And even as more users have come online, internet costs remain too high for many Africans.
The Kenyan authorities have said the balloons will help the country retain its competitive advantage in technological innovation. In the course of the testing that led up to Tuesday’s launch, over 35,000 users on the Telkom network connected to the internet through a Loon balloon. The users, some in remote towns in Kenya, used the service to stream video, browse websites and make video and voice calls on applications like WhatsApp.
Executives with Loon would not reveal the costs of the Telkom contract or any financial arrangements.
Loon, which is based in California and started operating in 2011, is one of the so-called moonshots to emerge from Alphabet’s research and development lab, known as X. Loon was spun off into a separate company in 2018 with the mandate to be a viable enterprise of its own. Other companies that have emerged from X include Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit.
Loon delivered emergency service to over 200,000 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, in collaboration with AT&T and T-Mobile.
In 2019, after an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 hit Peru, Loon brought LTE service to the affected area in conjunction with the telecommunications company Telefónica. Last November, the company announced that it would bring connectivity to secluded areas of the Amazon rainforest region in Peru. This year, Loon signed a deal with Vodacom to bring internet service to Mozambique.
Loon is hoping to succeed in Africa where another U.S. tech giant failed. Facebook backed efforts to beam internet connections into remote parts of the continent using drones, but abandoned the venture after several setbacks. Critics called the efforts a scheme to find new users for a platform whose reach already extends to nearly every corner of the globe.
The Loon project in Kenya has also drawn criticism from some quarters. Some say that Loon and Telkom are launching the service in parts of the country where cellular networks have already been expanded, instead of targeting underserved regions like north or northeastern Kenya. Many people in poor or remote areas cannot afford phones that are compatible with the 4G service Loon provides.
“I feel this solution is inordinate with the problem being solved,” said Phares Kariuki, the chief executive of Node Africa, a data management company. He noted that most Kenyans already had access to the internet — largely thanks to the proliferation of cellphone towers and fiber optic cables.
“Loon is a fringe solution for places where last-mile connectivity will be too expensive because the people are sparsely populated,” Kariuki said. “It’s not the best solution for this market.”
Others in Kenya welcomed the project, saying that the stratospheric balloons complement both ground and satellite technologies to help get more people online.
The coronavirus pandemic also proves that connectivity is an essential service that should be strengthened more than ever, said Mark Kaigwa, founder of Nendo, a Nairobi-based technology research firm.
“I think our current time of COVID-19 requires us to rethink infrastructure, essential services, movement of people, collection of data and connectivity,” Kaigwa said by telephone. Any venture that can help remove one more barrier can make a big difference, he said.
“The answer to ‘Is Loon realistic?’ Well, it’s what we’ve got,” Kaigwa said.