The thought of providing internet service with giant balloons might sound ridiculous. However, it’s the creative approach that Alphabet’s Loon division is using to connect tens of thousands of Kenyans. Loon announced on Monday that its first commercial internet service is now live.
The move is a big step forward for the unconventional company. It proves that non-traditional methods of providing internet are plausible. More importantly, it is helping people access a service they might not be able to otherwise.
Connecting Far and Wide
In the United States, the thought of not having an internet connection is practically absurd. Even rural areas can almost always access the internet via satellite. In developing countries like Kenya, that isn’t the case.
Loon has been testing its balloon-powered internet offering in Kenya for several months. To date, it claims that more than 35,000 unique users have connected through its 4G LTE service. Though, to be fair, it does say that “most didn’t realize it.”
While that means Loon isn’t heavily advertising its service, it also means that its performance is comparable to existing networks. The company notes that it was able to achieve a download speed of 18.9Mbps with an upload speed of 4.74Mbps. Those figures were accompanied by a latency of just 19ms. With such numbers, Loon’s service is capable of supporting most casual internet usage.
Indeed, the company says that it has tested its service with tasks like web browsing, email checking, voice and video calls, WhatsApp messaging, and YouTube viewing.
So, how exactly do balloons allow Loon to provide quality internet?
The company is using a fleet of 35 floating balloons (or “flight vehicles” as it likes to call them) that hover approximately 20 km above the ground. Loon’s balloon network provides blanket internet coverage to an area of about 50,000 square kilometers.
They continuously monitor weather patterns to stay elevated on stratospheric winds. The design allows them to stay in the air for more than 100 days before they need to come back down to Earth.
Meanwhile, each individual balloon is able to provide direct internet connectivity to users or act as a link in the system’s mesh network. The balloons are able to switch between functions depending on which need is more urgent.
Shaking Up the Norms
Loon’s balloon-based internet service certainly isn’t conventional. Nor is it going to catch on as a mainstream method for getting users connected.
However, it has a well-defined purpose. Loon doesn’t want to replace satellite connectivity or ground-based internet technologies like cell towers. Instead, it wants to offer a “third layer” of connectivity to serve those who might otherwise not be connected.
Moving forward, that will include other areas besides Kenya. Loon says it plans to offer internet services commercially in locations like the Amazon in South America. It is also partnering with AT&T to use its balloons to provide internet service after natural disasters. Since its networks can be deployed quickly, Loon can get people connected much faster than other methods in the wake of a disaster.