In June, Telkom Kenya, partnered with Loon, a subsidiary of Alphabet with an innovative approach to providing network coverage to rural and suburban areas with lower population densities, using high altitude balloons.
The partnership between the two – the first commercial service in Africa –was geared towards creating a web of connectivity from the edge of space using balloons for 4G or LTE network service in Kenya.
The technological innovation is a clear indication of how Telkom and Loon want to revolutionize internet access in Kenya, and it just got better. Everything is working as it should.
A recent test by loon involved the sending of a data connection 1,000km across a network of seven balloons operating in the stratosphere to try out connectivity.
The plan proves not over-ambitious as the approach to connectivity is backed by technology on multiple fronts. Some are measured in time, such as keeping a balloon aloft for nearly 200 days or staying in Peruvian airspace for 98 days. Whereas others, like the most recent ones, are measured in distance.
But how exactly do Loon balloons give you access to the internet? It is through what is referred to as backhaul connection. This connection from a ground access point to a balloon — a big jump that ultimately has some constraints. If a balloon gets too far from this access point, the signal eventually drops away and is rendered a mere pumpkin-shaped balloon floating in the stratosphere.
But Loon has got its act together. To address this issue, it has ensured that the backhaul connection jumps from one balloon to the next. This forms point-to-point links to transmit data between balloons. The distances between balloons are large, which means the hardware and algorithms that point the links must be both very accurate and precise. The task is rather complicated as the balloons are constantly shifting position relative to one another when riding wind currents in the stratosphere.
Nevertheless, Loon has always been on its toes in ensuring the balloons to talk to one another. At one point it sent the movie Real Genius between two balloons 100km apart using free space optics.
In August, Loon realized a great achievement. Rather than sticking to the 100km connection between two balloons, Loon went 10 times farther across seven balloons. With a connection that originated from the ground at Loon’s launch site in Nevada, where packets of data were transmitted to a balloon 20km overhead, the data traveled nearly 1,000km along a network of six additional balloons, going from the desert to mountains and back again.
A few weeks later, data was sent over 600 kilometers between two balloons making the innovator’s longest point-to-point link to date. These connections were made using custom-built antennas mounted to the bottom of our communications payload. Their accuracy is equivalent to throwing a ball 100 meters and landing it in a wastebasket. In this case, however, the wastebasket was in constant motion in the stratosphere.
So, why does all this matter? It has everything to do with reach. People live all over. Even with Loon expanding coverage area — which is 20 to 30 times greater than a traditional ground-based system — there are people who live outside the reach of a balloon operating adjacent to a backhaul connection on the ground. However, the company is looking to extend the reach by passing that connection across a network of balloons to cover far more people.
The best part is that Loon is not simply extending the connection to the last balloon in the line. Each balloon in the network can pass that connection to other balloons while simultaneously using it to connect users on the ground. Instead of one balloon utilizing one ground-based connection point to serve users, that same terrestrial access point can be used to activate a network of multiple balloons, all of which can connect people below. Therefore, a web of connectivity is created to serve users without having to build lots of new infrastructure on the ground, which is a significant obstacle to bringing traditional access to unconnected and under-connected communities around the world.
For a long time, a fundamental constraint of connectivity has been proximity, or a lack thereof, to where the internet is now. Loon is working to change this reality by making the internet reach further. With billions of people lacking connectivity, there’s a lot of ground to cover. As it prepares to launch commercial service starting in 2019, its ability to make connections across more balloons and longer distances will be a key enabler of Loon’s efforts to connect people everywhere.