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’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce -

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

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