The service is jointly run by Loon, a unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet, and Telkom Kenya, the East African nation’s third largest telecoms operator.
According to Loon, the service which launched Wednesday in remote regions of Kenya’s Rift Valley, will initially cover 50,000 square kilometers in western and central parts of Kenya.
The target, however, is to take a fleet of 35 balloons to the skies above in Eastern African over the coming weeks.
This is a milestone achievement, following years of publicity about the venture, and is expected to provide reliable 4G internet service using the solar-powered balloons.
According to reports, the service has been used by U.S. Telecom operators in the past but not on a commercial level.
“This is a first in many ways: 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,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post.
He noted that during the weeks of testing, the service had connected over 35,000 unique users, delivering OTT voice and video calling, streaming, web connectivity, and more, with a demonstrated download speed of 18.9Mbps (megabits per second) and upload speed of 4.74Mbps.
“While this sounds like a far-off, science-fiction future, it’s not. Just look to Kenya,” Westgarth added.
Rather than delivering connectivity from the ground through cell towers and cables, or from space via satellites, Loon says it is building a “third layer of connectivity” in the stratosphere.
Loon describes the project as a “floating network of cell towers,” aimed at providing internet from high altitudes to vast swathes of the Earth where service is not available.
This is a timely intervention considering the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increased need for internet services to push the e-commerce sector.
“Kenya is the first country… to have base stations high up in the sky. Now we will be able to cover the whole country in a very short span of time,” Joe Mucheru, Kenya’s Information Minister said after launching the service.
Westgarth also said that Loon has a deal to roll out the service with Vodacom in Mozambique, and that the company has seen increased interest from operators and governments after the coronavirus crisis forced people to rely on the internet more heavily.