KENYA's INTERNET BALLOONS COULD HELP TO BRIDGE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
I just found out that my country Kenya has, in partnership with Google’s sister firm, Loon, launched a fleet of 35 internet balloons that will provide internet services to remote areas of the country. This is the first balloon-powered internet to launch in Africa.
According to the New York Times, the balloons will provide a 4G LTE network connection to nearly the 31,000-square-mile area across central and western Kenya, including Nairobi.
This is awesome news. Another first for Africa.
Project Loon was launched in 2013 and has been used for many emergencies such as connecting Peru after an earthquake in 2019. Loon has taken the most essential components of a cell tower and has designed them to be light enough to be carried by a balloon. These balloons are manufactured to cope with extreme weather conditions.
Kenya has a wide variety of connectivity infrastructure. About 39 million Kenyans are hooked up to wireless subscriptions, mostly through mobile phones, which depend on signals from a mast. Wired subscriptions stand at about 458,000.
This is impressive for a population of about 51 million people. Internet connectivity in Tanzania, by comparison, reached an estimated 27 million people (out of about 56 million people) by March 2020.
Kenya also continues to deepen its connectivity infrastructure through a national fibre optic cable. To date, close to 6,000km of the fibre optic backbone has been laid down and plans are to reach all 47 counties.
Despite impressive developments, more can be done. Most people in Kenya access the internet through their mobile phones. When looking at how well mobile phone providers cover the country geographically, we see that large areas of the country, particularly in the north and northeast, don’t have much coverage. Most internet coverage is around towns in the central, coastal, and western areas and along major roadways.
This state of coverage is partly because of internet privatization and electricity coverage.
As countries aim for universal internet connectivity, Google’s internet balloons are a welcome addition. If the balloons are directed towards the currently under-served areas, their presence could reduce the digital exclusion of those areas.
Google’s internet balloons are wireless internet connectivity towers that float in the stratosphere. They beam internet signals to Earth-based stations, which then transmit the internet to users through internet service providers.
A single balloon can provide internet connectivity to an area of about 80km in diameter and serve about 1,000 users on the ground.
It’s expected that the signal strength users get will be similar to 4G browsing speeds.
Hopefully, as the benefits of Google’s internet balloons unfold, we should also see faster development of local digital applications, supported by local digital infrastructure platforms. That might spur the development of content. The importance of making it possible for everyone to have access to the Internet has never been so clear in our day to day lives. What exciting times!