Google is set to sign deals with Kenyan telecoms operators to provide internet coverage to remote locations through a network of floating balloons that could also significantly cut costs.
Through its Project Loon, Google has embarked on a global campaign to increase internet connectivity access to people living in rural areas without ground stations and fibre connections.
Kenya’s Ministry of ICT welcomed the move arguing that an aerial network would bring down costs significantly and deepen the use of internet across all segments of the rural population.
“It is companies such as X [formerly Google X] that innovate and provide solutions that benefit our city. We welcome the use of high-altitude balloons to create an aerial wireless network that offers real benefits to consumers,” said principal secretary in the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) Sammy Itemere. “The balloon network with up to 4G-LTE speeds would help Kenya multiply ICT’s impact on the economy.” He added.
According to a 2017 report by Jumia and GSMA mobile 67% of Kenyans have internet access through their mobile devices. This was well above Africa’s 18% average. The Loon balloons will be less expensive to install than communications satellites and will offer stronger internet connectivity. This potentially means a huge reduction in the cost of internet connection for telecoms operators – a benefit that may trickle down to users. The balloons enable the nearest telecommunications partner’s ground station to receive the wireless internet signals that are then transmitted across the network of balloons and then back down to users’ mobile phones on the ground.
Each balloon can cover up to 5000 square kilometers and uses only renewable energy. Google said it has deployed 10 balloons for testing in Nakuru, Nanyuki, Nyeri, and Marsabit.
Locally, Telkom said it has been in consultation with Google regarding Project Loon but no official partnerships can be confirmed yet.
“Telkom has not yet deployed any service on this solution as we are still in discussions with the team from Loon to conclude on potential partnerships and synergies, using their solutions,” George Mlaghui, the chief corporate communications officer at Telkom said in a statement.
ICT ministry officials said the balloon technology would complement the fibre network technology used in all counties, and which they are working on further extending to sub Saharan African counties.
Globally, balloon crashes have occurred in 10 countries, including Panama and the USA. Project Loon has however been lauded for its role in providing internet to disaster-stricken areas. Notably, it partnered with AT&T to provide coverage to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. It also worked with the Peruvian government and Telefonica when floods destroyed infrastructure in Peru.
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