Coronavirus: Uhuru approves wider internet coverage initiative

Undated handout photo of a Project Loon balloon to be used in Puerto Rico, being launched from Nevada. REUTERS/Google/Handout

President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced the approval of rollout of faster internet across the country to aid the economy currently feeling the impact of coronavirus

He said learners, those working from home and regions previously unreached by faster internet will benefit from Google and Telkom Kenya initiative to receive high-speed internet through Google Loon balloons project.

“In that regard, and to foster communication and enable Kenyans to retain and enhance remote access to the offices and enterprises, My Administration has granted approvals that will ensure universal 4G Data Coverage throughout Kenya,” said President Uhuru.

“Going forward the Google Loon balloons will hover on Kenya’s airspace to provide faster internet, the initiative will help learners access digital learning materials and those working from home to go about their work with fewer difficulties,” he said.

The loon balloons will fly over Kenyan airspace in an agreement signed between the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) with Google Loon.  The balloons, which will hover well above Kenya’s commercial airspace, carry 4G base stations and have the capacity to provide wider signal coverage.  

Loon’s solution works by beaming Internet connectivity from these ground stations to a balloon 20km overhead. From there, the signal can be sent across multiple balloons, creating a network of floating cell towers that deliver connectivity directly to a user’s LTE-enabled device below.

The regulatory approvals allow Loon to host the Telkom spectrum on its stratospheric balloons; utilise millimeter wave spectrum to send connectivity from the ground to balloons overhead, and import and install ground infrastructure.

The Loon service has previously been used in disaster emergency response, in collaboration with the Governments of Peru and Puerto Rico. The learnings from these two assignments would be crucial to helping address some of the connectivity challenges that may be presented by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). 
According to a communication from Telkom, the balloons will be dispatched from Loon’s sites in the United States, and it is hoped that they will arrive in the country in the next few weeks. 
Once the balloons arrive in Kenya, Loon and Telkom will be able to conduct the final stages of network integration testing, required to begin serving Kenyans. “Given the situation with the COVID-19 virus and the need for enhanced connectivity, Loon and Telkom are working as quickly as possible, given the limitations resulting from the worldwide pandemic,” says Telkom in communication to newsrooms.
Initial coverage areas have already been identified, within the larger central area of the country; fairly mountainous and remote areas, making service accessibility and availability a challenge. 
Telkom and Loon will thereafter work to expedite service deployment, progressively to other areas, to support the Kenya Government’s efforts to address and manage the spread of COVID-19 in the country. It is also envisaged that the Loon service will work to have targeted communities connected to emergency services, as well as ensure enhanced and alternative communication options between loved ones, whether in isolation or in quarantine. 
Loon’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Alastair Westgarth says that Loon and Telkom continue to work collaboratively with governmental agencies to bring Loon’s service to Kenya. 
“Together with Telkom, we continue to work in close collaboration with the Communications Authority of Kenya, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, and others, to usher in Africa’s first-ever deployment of this innovative solution, to connect unconnected and under-connected communities. We are grateful to these agencies for their support, collaboration, and innovative approach to expanding connectivity,” Westgarth says.
The government has already developed a comprehensive lessons program for learners to access while safe within their homes.
The Google Loon and Telkom Kenya partnership is expected to allow learners to continue learning through access to soft copy education materials and assignments when schools are shut due to the coronavirus pandemic

Internet experts in the country terming it a good direction towards achieving universal access have welcomed the move

Alex Gakuru, the Executive Director of Code IP Trust says the move will see all corners of the country connected to faster internet and heralds a new way of doing business. “We have for long talked about the universal access, the Google-Telkom initiative will distribute internet equally across the country enabling businesses and supporting internet based learning even in remotest parts of the country,” he says.

He called on strict enforcement of data privacy laws to protect misuse of information anticipated to go online following the new partnership.