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Collapse of Loon project dims promise of cheaper Internet

By Frankline Sunday | January 23rd 2021 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

A Loon balloon floating in the air space. [Courtesy]

The news that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is winding down its subsidiary Loon has dealt a blow to efforts to provide affordable Internet to under-served areas of the country.

Loon Chief Executive Alastair Westgarth said the decision to shut down the firm less than a year after launching commercial services in Kenya was made out of high costs that made the project unsustainable.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users: The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people,” said Mr Westgarth in a statement published online. 

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business.”

In July last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta attended the launch of Loon’s first commercial deployment in the world, a partnership with Telkom Kenya that would provide 4G broadband to residents in 14 remote counties.  

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The project was hailed as a game-changer for connectivity for residents in the counties, raising optimism on access to applications such as online learning, telemedicine and remote working.

Loon works by beaming Internet connectivity from ground stations to around 35 separate balloons in constant motion 20 kilometres in the stratosphere.

The balloons (floating base stations) are then linked to the ground stations that have been connected to Telkom’s network.

Telkom Kenya users with a standard 4G-LTE SIM card would then be able to access the services whenever the balloons passed through their airspace. 

Kenya was the first country in Africa to commence pilot tests in 2018 and the first in the world to have a commercial deployment.

The first phase of the project was targeted for residents in Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho and Narok with deployment of more balloons to follow.

Field tests undertaken by Telkom and Loon in June last year registered an uplink speed of 4.74 mbps, a downlink speed of 18.9 mbps and latency of 19 milliseconds (ms), speeds on applications such as email, web browsing, data calls such as through WhatsApp, video calls and YouTube.

Intermittent service

The project has, however, been marred by several challenges including erratic wind patterns and restricted air spaces that led to intermittent service, and in some cases crashing of balloons.  

In August, a Loon balloon crashed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in 2018 another one crashed in a farm in Meru County.

Westgarth said despite the decision to wind down the company, the project had registered a series of firsts in aviation and communications technology.

“Working side-by-side with governments and global aviation and communications regulators to showcase and enable these new technologies, we found ways to safely fly a lighter-than-air vehicle for hundreds of days in the stratosphere to anywhere in the world,” he said. 

“We built a system for quickly and reliably launching a vehicle size of a tennis court and we built a global supply chain for an entirely new technology and business.”

“Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier. Today, I’m sad to share that Loon will be winding down,” he added.    

In a statement yesterday, Telkom Kenya said the project with Loon will come to an end on March 1.

“Telkom remains cognisant of the integral role our core terrestrial network plays in keeping our customers connected,” said Chief Executive Mugo Kibati.

“We continue with our long-term terrestrial network expansion plan, that is informed by our overall company strategy, which will see us scale up to 80 per cent of our network to 4G, increase our network footprint across the country, and get more Kenyans online.”

Loon Internet Kenya
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