Alphabet's Internet-Beaming Loon Balloons Now Providing Service in Kenya

Illustration for article titled Alphabets Internet-Beaming Loon Balloons Now Providing Service in Kenya
Image: Loon

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has deployed a fleet of internet-delivering, high-altitude balloons in Kenya, an initiative that the company’s CEO said will be “the first of many” future commercial deployments in other parts of the world.

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Loon chief Alastair Westgarth announced in a blog post this week that the 4G LTE network connectivity tools—impressively large, internet-beaming balloons that hover roughly 20 kilometers (or about 12 miles) in the stratosphere—said the project marked the first use of the technology in Africa, as well as the first time Loon had been used for internet connectivity in a non-emergency context.

Loon partnered with telecommunications provider Telkom to deliver internet connectivity to a 50,000-square-kilometer (31,000-square-mile) region in rural Kenya, a spokesperson said Tuesday, specifically an area that’s mountainous and harder to provide service in. Around 35 or more of the Loon balloons—which the spokesperson characterized as “floating cell phone towers”—will support internet connections for video, email, texting, browsing, and apps like YouTube and WhatsApp.

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Illustration for article titled Alphabets Internet-Beaming Loon Balloons Now Providing Service in Kenya
Image: Loon

The service relies on ground stations that send signals to constantly shifting balloons, which deliver connections to regions below for those with LTE mobile devices. Westgarth said the company will continue to deploy balloons in the coming weeks, allowing service to “become more consistent,” though service can still be affected by things like stratospheric winds, among other factors—the clear downside to the technology.

“As our balloons, or flight vehicles as we call them, float on stratospheric winds, they work together to provide coverage to areas below,” Westgarth said. “Depending on their position, a flight vehicle can alternate between actively serving users, operating as a feeder link in our mesh network to beam the internet to other vehicles, or repositioning itself to get back to the service region. Still other flight vehicles can be staged nearby (in stratospheric terms), waiting to enter the service region where they can begin providing connectivity.”

The Loon balloons were previously used to deploy emergency service in disaster zones, as in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and in Peru last year following a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. They have also, notably, been repeatedly mistaken for UFOs—which, given the fact that the balloons resemble massive ethereal jellyfish, makes sense.

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DISCUSSION

This seems like an unsustainable amount of overhead (no pun intended) for providing ongoing service. These things seem to crash pretty regularly, as one might expect from unpowered flight vehicles, which can’t help with costs. The relatively low volume doesn’t lend itself to economy-of-scale, so I’m guessing these will cost at least as much over 5 years as it would have cost to just install fixed infrastructure in the first place.

Also annoying to see Africa constantly used as a testbed for hokey unproven ideas. It’s a big deal if balloons fall out of the sky in populated areas in developed nations, but who cares if they’re falling on remote villages.

An area in poverty generally means people are too uneducated to earn a living wage, and too desperate to say no, which means they’re also frequently susceptible (again, no pun intended) to pie-in-the-sky schemes that just end up leaving them worse off than they were before. Even if Loon were giving away service for free (they’re not, though they’re almost certainly running in the red), what happens in 5 years, after people have started to depend on this service, and it shuts down because someone rightly concludes that it’s not worth bleeding money to provide spotty service to people who can’t afford it? Then they’re just abandoned and left bitter and resentful, and rightly so.

A real solution is sustainable by the people it aims to serve. I have no confidence that this is sustainable (where does one get an off-the-shelf high altitude balloon equipped with commodity hardware to patch into their network?), so it’s ultimately unhelpful at best, and counterproductive at worst, and that makes it unethical in my view.

If Google really wants to help, they can build some remote towers, run the backhaul, and call it a day. That’s honestly cheap (*especially* in labor markets like Kenya) and easy to maintain and uses commodity hardware that anyone with minimal training and resources can continue to operate indefinitely.

(I might be a little touchy because I have a front-door view to many of the ways that developing nations get fucked over on an ongoing basis by developed government and non-government orgs constantly overpromising and under-delivering.)