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Alphabet’s Loon balloons take flight in first commercial trial

Alphabet’s Loon balloons take flight in first commercial trial
[Photo: courtesy of Loon]

Could Alphabet’s big internet project finally catch wind? In the next few weeks, the company’s internet via balloon skunkworks Loon will come to Kenya for a commercial test in partnership with Telkom Kenya, the country’s third largest carrier, according to Reuters.

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The pilot will be watched by many in the telecom industry.

Loon started in 2011 as a way to bring wireless service to regions where it would be difficult if not impossible to install a cell tower. The company designed a stripped down cell tower that could be floated 20 kilometers into the air and powered by solar cells. Using a network of balloons, Loon creates a mesh network that communicates with an antenna system on the ground.

Many in the telecom industry are still skeptical of Loon’s sustained viability. For the past four years, the company has been pursuing a potential launch in Indonesia but has been unable to secure a commitment, according to Reuters. Over the years, Loon has probably attracted the most attention for balloon crashes. Among other potential problems: The balloons last approximately five months before they start to deteriorate. They can also get also pushed out of range before their time is up, creating service problems, and because they’re powered by solar energy, they also can only operate in very sunny places.

After all, other massive airborne internet projects, such as Facebook’s drone project Aquila, have failed to take off.

The Loon project has had some success though. After hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Loon stepped in to provide needed wireless service. Using between five and seven balloons, Loon was able to get service to more than 200,000 residents in a few months time, according to a report from Ars Technica last year.

While Loon’s latest launch bears out, others are looking to space.

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