High-speed internet can improve the collection of disease data © Loon
High-speed internet can improve the collection of disease data © Loon

Internet balloons could help coronavirus response

23 July 2020

Floating mobile phone antennae have arrived in the skies above Africa’s least-connected region in a move by Google parent company Alphabet to improve internet access on the continent.

Project Loon has started providing internet service to the people of Kenya through a fleet of solar-powered, high-altitude balloons that float 12 miles high in the stratosphere.

Commentators have said the move could improve the way countries respond to health emergencies such as the coronavirus outbreak.

Loon chief executive Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post that Loon has now started providing service in Kenya to subscribers of Telkom Kenya.

“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,” he said.

Loon has launched 35 balloons over the last few months to provide a network connection to an area covering nearly 31,000 sq miles across central and western Kenya, including capital Nairobi.

Westgarth said Loon had vastly improved its technology – balloons originally needed to be launched by hand.

“Launching... is now done by twin, 90-foot tall automated machines that can send a balloon to 60,000 feet once every 30 minutes,” he said.

“Balloons that once floated freely around the world are now directed by machine-learning algorithms... to achieve the mission of providing sustained service to users below.”

The balloons had previously only been used in emergencies such as in Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria disrupted cell towers.

Loon considers Kenya, whose terrains include mountains and inaccessible areas where traditional connectivity methods are limited in effectiveness, to be an ideal location to operate its service.

The balloons are the size of tennis courts, powered by solar panels, and are controlled by the software on the ground, operating in the stratosphere for around 100 days before returning to earth.

They are launched from stations in California and Puerto Rico. However Loon said the balloons’ dependence on winds meant sustained coverage in certain areas could not be guaranteed.

“In the course of the testing that led us to today’s service launch, many Kenyans have already been connecting to the internet through a balloon – although most didn’t realise it,” said Westgarth.

“Since we began early tests, we’ve connected over 35,000 unique users, delivering OTT voice and video calling, streaming, web connectivity, and more.”

Ifeanyi Nsofor, a senior new voices fellow at the Aspen Institute and microbiologist Dara Ajala-Damisa welcomed the development, writing on Allafrica.com. 

Citing figures that only 28% of Africans have access to the internet and problems of low internet speed, they said they hoped the Loon project would address both challenges.

This in turn could lead to new ways of collecting data about public health challenges in East Africa and increase response time to emergencies.

“Detection, prevention and response to infectious disease outbreaks begins with proper documentation, and the availability of high-speed internet through the Google Project Loon could help Kenya and neighboring East African countries transition from paper-based data collection of integrated disease surveillance and response to digital real-time platforms,” they said.

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