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Man chats with President Uhuru Kenyatta via video link. [Photo, Standard]
A video link interaction between President Uhuru Kenyatta and residents of Radad, Baringo County, highlighted the launch of commercial Google Loon technology in Kenya yesterday.

President Kenyatta, who was linked by Cabinet Secretary, Information Communication Technology Joe Mucheru via phone, said the technology will enable many youths to access job opportunities while also providing a platform to connect the health systems and improve livelihoods.

“The beginning of this is connectivity and we are very grateful to Loon for working together with us to be able to provide this service which will be able to create opportunities, improve livelihoods and also connect to the health system,” Kenyatta said.

The service by Google’s mother company Alphabet launched on Tuesday could revolutionise access to mobile telephony services in Kenya.

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While the country is regarded as a success in telecommunications, there are numerous areas that do not have access to basic mobile phone services. An ICT gaps study by the Communications Authority of Kenya noted that about 5.6 per cent of Kenyans in far-flung areas do not have access to basic mobile services. Many have to walk long distances to make a voice call, and in cases of emergency, they have to fend for themselves.

Telecommunication firms deem the areas commercially unviable while the Universal Service Fund, managed by CA and supposed to take ICT services to marginalised areas has been too slow in deploying networks to these areas.

Radad is among such places where residents have in the past had to grapple with phone calls being disrupted due to poor network coverage. From yesterday, the residents of the area can sustain a video call.

Learning materials

The brief virtual meeting between the president and hundreds of residents of Baringo excited the village youth, who said they were ready to embrace technology and make use of it to create employment.

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In a five-minute interactive session, the president spoke about how the community could make use of the technology to market their honey, goat meat and farm produce to the world. He then requested Mucheru to purchase honey for him and take it to State House, Nairobi.

Dedan Kimosop, a youth from Radad, said villagers are excited because they will be marketing their honey and other products via the internet.

“Our young learners will now have access to learning materials at this time of the Covid-19 pandemic that has forced them to stay at home,” Kimosop said.

Mucheru said Kenya officially becomes the first country to commercialise the technology.

He said the country was also the first in Africa to use the technology, making it complete in internet connectivity.

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Through the network of gigantic internet-enabled balloons -- a partnership project between Google and Telkom Kenya -- Kenyans, wherever they are, can now access 4G coverage.

The service will initially be available in Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho and Narok. “Across the country, Kenyans can make voice and video calls, stream live videos, access emails, texts among other internet-enabled applications,” Mucheru said.

He said the launch of the loons brings total internet connectivity across Kenya, bridging the gap in remote areas. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) census report showed that Kenyans have much less access to ICT services than previously thought. According to the report, mobile users stand at 20 million, with the majority of them being women.

The Kenya Population and Housing Census 2019 noted that just one in five Kenyans has access to the internet and only 3.7 per cent of the population engages in e-commerce.

This is despite Kenya having high mobile phone users at 54.2 million subscribers as of March this year attributed to the ownership of more than one SIM card among subscribers.

“This is a major step for Kenya in closing the digital divide,” Mucheru said.

The Loon is a balloon made of polyethene and loaded with flight system equipment that travels on space to deliver connectivity to people in remote areas. The Loons, which were dispatched to Kenya from Puerto Rico, have finally landed in Kenyan airspace, boosting connectivity.

The launch of the Loons in Kenya bridge the gap that could have otherwise taken more than 20 years, with Kenya setting pace for Africa and the world in beaming 4G internet connectivity from ground stations to balloons in the sky.

“Google chose Kenya because there was a need and because of great innovations that have stood out. This milestone of completely covering the entire country with internet connectivity could have been reached in over 20 years with investments of between Sh100 and 200 billion,” Mucheru said.

Pioneer service

The achievement, he said, is further expected to transform key dockets including health, tourism, education among others as well as boosting virtual engagements.

“Key dockets like hospitals across Kenya can now be integrated while thousands of students can access learning materials online,” he said.

The service will initially cover a region spanning nearly 50,000 square kilometres.

Mugo Kibati, Telkom Kenya’s chief executive officer said the pioneer service in Africa is a milestone to connecting communities in remote areas. “This is an exciting milestone for internet service provision in Africa,” Kibati said.

To provide service in Kenya, Loon and Telkom are utilising a fleet of balloons that are in constant motion in the in space. The balloons are currently being maintained in a relatively stable position over the target coverage area. Mucheru said they are working with Communications Authority of Kenya to ensure affordability of devices that will enable more people to access the internet. [Additional reporting by Maharia Kamau]

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