Telkom Kenya activates rural balloon-powered 4G service

Telkom Kenya activates rural balloon-powered 4G service

09 July 2020 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Telkom Kenya has activated its rural 4G mobile service using balloons from Google’s sister company Loon.

The service will initially cover a region spanning nearly 50,000 sq km eventually using 35 or more separate balloons, mainly operating to the north-west of the capital, Nairobi. It has been tested with 35,000 customers.

Mugo Kibati, CEO of Telkom Kenya, said: “The internet-enabled balloons will be able to offer connectivity to the many Kenyans who live in remote regions that are underserved or totally unserved, and as such remain disadvantaged.”

Tests show downlink speeds of 18.9Mbps and uplink of 4.74Mbps, with a latency of 19ms. The service is solar-powered, so does not work long after sunset. Operation is limited to 06:00 to 21:00 – a couple of hours after the sun goes down.

Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said: “This is the culmination of years of work and collaboration between Loon, Telkom and the government. Without the support and engagement by various government agencies, today would not be possible. We are incredibly grateful to the many governmental stakeholders who helped usher in Africa’s first application of this innovative technology.”

Telkom said that, with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be focusing on online education (see picture) and other services such as telemedicine.

Westgarth said: “In light of the spread of Covid-19, Telkom and Loon are working as fast as we can to realise service deployment. This will also enable us support the Kenyan government’s efforts to manage the current crisis in the short-term, and to establish sustainable operations to serve communities in Kenya in the long-term.”

Kibati said: “We remain intent on expediting all projected timelines with the primary objective being to further shorten the total time taken towards progressive service deployment.”

The first official video call took place yesterday, when Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, talked to information technology minister Joe Mucheru, who was in the service area, with Kibati as well as Edward Njoroge, chairman of Telkom Kenya.

In a blog post on Medium, Westgarth said this is “the first non-emergency use of Loon to provide connectivity on a large-scale basis, the first application of balloon-powered internet in Africa, and the first of what will be many commercial deployments around the world”.

Earlier this week Northern Sky Research forecast a US$4 billion market over the next 10 years for balloon-delivered services. 

Loon, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, and Telkom teams have used the service for applications including voice calls, video calls, YouTube, WhatsApp, email, texting, web browsing, and more, he added.

The balloons operate from 20km above the surface, effectively providing floating towers. Artificial intelligence (AI) helps keep them on station but sometimes the wind makes them drift out of position.

Westgarth explained: “Depending on their position, a flight vehicle can alternate between actively serving users, operating as a feeder link in our mesh network to beam the internet to other vehicles, or repositioning itself to get back to the service region.”

He warned: “There are times when the stratospheric winds, combined with other impediments such as restricted airspaces, constrain our ability to serve an intended region.”

Westgarth noted: “Nearly 3.8 billion people, or about half of humanity, don’t have access to the internet, and many more lack what we would consider meaningful access. … We’ve seen a dramatic slowdown in the growth of internet access in the last few years: from 19% [a year] in 2007 to less than 6% in 2018. And all of this is happening as the demand for connectivity is growing exponentially – and not just from people, but also from the internet-connected things that those people increasingly rely upon.”