Alphabet’s Loon deploys internet connectivity balloons to Kenya for first commercial service launch

Alphabet-owned Loon, the high-altitude broadband connectivity company for hard-to-reach places, has launched the first balloons that will provide its first ever commercial connectivity services to Kenyans following the approval of its service deployment by the government of Kenya a couple of weeks ago. The balloons are now in testing, but pending the results of those tests, they’ll turn on service “in the coming weeks,” according to the company.

Loon is working with partner Telkom Kenya to provide services to that network’s subscribers in the country. Its balloons fly at a height of roughly 65,000 feet, in the Earth’s stratosphere, with the goal of providing stable, reliable and fast connectivity to a specific area without requiring satellites and with access for remote areas not served by ground cell tower infrastructure.

The Loon balloons actually have quite the journey to make to get to the area it will service in Kenya, taking off from either Puerto Rico or Nevada, as Loon CTO Sal Candido explains in a Medium post. From there, they navigate on air currents to make their way to their target destination, using “the fastest route that drifting on the stratospheric winds allow,” to traverse upwards of 6,800 miles through a somewhat circuitous route, which is determined by Loon’s automated navigation software.

Upon arrival in Kenya, those same machine learning powered-algorithms are used to help the balloons maintain a relatively stable position over the target coverage area. Balloons move up and down in the stratosphere to catch different air currents, taking short trips in a fixed geographic area to provide 24-hour coverage to customers on the ground.

Loon’s model and partnership with Telkom means that it can provide access through Telkom’s network to that company’s customers instantly once the system is tested and proven, but that also means Telkom sets the rates, which African internet accessibility startup BRCK has noted might be a barrier to some. Still, this first commercial deployment is a significant milestone for Loon and should help make the case for more and more varied deployments to follow, including a range of different business model approaches.