Take-off in Africa for Google’s moon shot Loon
A fleet of 35 balloons covering 20,000 square miles will provide 4G internet for Kenya Telkom, finds Margi Murphy in San Francisco ‘Simply put, it often doesn’t make economic sense to construct towers in sparsely populated or very rugged locations’
Sixty thousand feet up in the skies above Kenya, a fleet of silvery orbs sway, dip and soar in the stratospheric winds. Unknown to the people below, the 90ft structures are providing access to the internet for remote areas in a partnership between Kenya Telkom and Loon, a unit of Google-parent Alphabet.
Loon launched in 2012 under X, Google’s “moon shot” factory, which has nurtured blue-sky projects like driverless car start-up Waymo and Google Glass.
It was a simple idea to solve a monumental modern day problem: why not float a router from a hot-air balloon to beam the internet down to areas without mobile coverage? In the years that have followed, the designs have become more sophisticated to accommodate some of the most unforgiving parts of the planet.
“We’re essentially a floating cell phone tower operating in near-space where temperatures can reach minus 90C and winds can blow at 62 metres per second (139mph),” says Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon.
Westgarth is determined to launch more commercial deals. Almost half of humanity, or 3.8bn people, are cut off from the web and will remain isolated as there is little financial gain for telecommunication companies to build masts.
“Simply put, it often doesn’t make economic sense to construct towers in sparsely populated or very rugged locations,” Westgarth says.
Increasing internet access to just 10pc of a country can raise GDP by 1.19pc per year, according to a 2012 study by the World Bank.
“We think we can change that calculus with a technology that will make connecting the unconnected feasible. I don’t have a number, but we hope to make a good dent in the number of unconnected people in the coming years,” he says.
In Kenya, a fleet of 35 balloons, 12 miles up in the stratosphere, will provide 4G services to subscribers of Telkom Kenya, the country’s third biggest telecoms operator.
Together, the fleet will cover 20,000 square miles across western and central areas of the country.
Software that pre-empts the weather can help dip or raise the balloons to catch stratospheric winds going in the right direction, letting them stay in the right place or be brought back to land if needed.
Wind is as much an asset as it is a liability. If it pushes the balloons astray, those depending on them below will be instantly cut off. The structures also need to be light, yet durable enough to withstand winds for long periods of time.
Over the course of almost a decade, a team of Loon engineers, scientists and fashion designers have painstakingly experimented with different balloons, enduring hours of frustration and the dreaded “pop” of the most recent version ringing in their ears as it bursts mid-launch.
After searching far and wide for the perfect material (taking inspiration from the durability of condoms and food packaging) Loon has extended the balloon’s lifespan from hours to a record 223 days. Still, most need to be replaced every five months. Loon engineers have perfected the technique of launching, from the crude human hand to twin 90ft machines that can shoot balloons into near space every 30 minutes.
In addition, the solar-powered balloons, costing tens of thousands of dollars, need plenty of year-round sunshine, leaving the United States, China and South America off-limits – not to mention Europe and the UK.
This has left some telecommunications companies sitting on the fence. Executives at five wireless carriers that have been in talks with Loon, including Telkom Indonesia, Vodafone New Zealand and French giant Orange, said that the project would not be a fit because of patchy coverage and costs, according to Reuters.
The company has already partnered with some of the world’s biggest and most innovative mobile network operators, including AT&T, Telefonica, and Vodacom in Mozambique, and provided emergency service to over 200,000 people following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, when providers’ masts were damaged. If successful, this week’s launch in Kenya, its first commercial coup, could see more countries sign up. Silicon Valley companies’ worthy dreams to provide equal internet access have failed before, and Loon has learnt lessons watching Mark Zuckerberg, whose Internet.org initiative to connect the world was shut down after technical difficulties, accusations of digital colonialism and criticism from the telecommunications industry.
“We firmly believe in the power of the internet to transform people’s lives,” says Westgarth. “It is incredibly important that as we pursue this mission we do so in a way that is respectful of the local communities in which we operate.”
This is why Loon is working with local mobile network operators rather than building its own. Loon says it has found a market between ground-based mobile phone masts and space-based satellite providers, some 300 miles above ground, and by partnering with local providers will avoid local politics.
This way, it won’t be seen as a direct competitor to powerful telecom operators. At the moment, the start-up is asking operators for a fixed subscription charge based on the size of the coverage area, plus fees linked to data usage. This may not be so appealing for providers, who can only charge market rates to the small populations Loon wants to cover, often spread across a wide area.
Investors’ ears may prick up when they hear Northern Sky Research’s recent report that the market for balloons, airships and other alternatives to mobile phone towers will be worth $4bn (£3.2bn) in revenues over the next decade. SoftBank gave Loon $125m last year.
But Google’s moon shots have sometimes struggled. Take Makani, which used kites to create energy. It was killed off in 2019, a year after it was spun out into its own business.
It may always be remembered as a remarkable example of human ingenuity, but Loon’s greatest challenge will not be proving it works, so much as showing that it can actually make cold, hard cash.
Loon’s balloon designs have evolved and now have a lifespan of up to 223 days