Google's Loon to bring 4G to remote areas of Kenya – via balloon

  • Loon, a subsidiary of Google-parent company Alphabet, is to launch a pilot scheme bringing 4G access to remote areas of Kenya via high-altitude balloon.
  • The venture is Loon's first commercial service in Africa.
  • Kenya has a more developed IT system than other countries in the region, and its capital Nairobi is a growing technology hub, an expert in sub-Saharan Africa told CNBC.
Visitors stand next to a high altitude WiFi internet hub, a Google Project Loon balloon, on display at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, on June 16, 2013.
Marty Melville | AFP | Getty Images
Visitors stand next to a high altitude WiFi internet hub, a Google Project Loon balloon, on display at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, on June 16, 2013.

Alphabet’s Loon is to bring 4G internet access to parts of Kenya using high-altitude balloons, it was announced Thursday.

The pilot scheme is to be Loon’s first commercial service in Africa, achieved through working with Telkom Kenya, a partly-state owned telecommunications firm.

“With this association with Loon, we will be partnering with a pioneer in the use of high-altitude balloons to provide LTE (4G) coverage across larger areas in Kenya,” said Aldo Mareuse, Telkom Kenya’s chief executive, in a press release.

Loon’s balloons operate 20 kilometers (60,000 feet) above sea level, beyond the altitude of air traffic and weather.

“The balloons act as floating cell towers, transmitting a provider’s service,” said the press release. The technology is powered by solar panels.

The initiative is to take place in central Kenya, which due to mountainous terrain has proved difficult to provide with 4G. The service is expected to be up and running in the east African country by 2019.

Loon is a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet.

“Kenya has a much more developed IT system than most of its peers” on the African continent, John Ashbourne, a specialist in the sub-Saharan Africa region at research firm Capital Economics, told CNBC via email.

He highlighted the capital Nairobi as a burgeoning technology hub, adding that “access to mobile phones and use of the internet is also more prevalent than elsewhere; so you have a good market of potential consumers if the idea does work.”

Last month, Google announced that it was to open its first AI research center on the other side of Africa, in Accra, the capital of Ghana.

Correction: This story has been updated after an earlier version misstated Kenya's location in Africa.