Alphabet's Loon project has finally launched its internet-delivery balloons in Africa following a deal with the Kenyan government.
It marks a significant milestone for Loon, once one of Google's "moonshot" projects, and follows years of publicity about the venture. Loon said its service would initially cover 50,000 square kilometers in western and central parts of Kenya.
The firm has partnered with local telecommunications operator Telkom Kenya to beam 4G internet from its solar-powered balloons. It aims to take a fleet of 35 balloons to the skies above eastern Africa "in the coming weeks."
Loon calls the project a "floating network of cell towers," aimed at providing internet from high altitudes to vast swathes of the Earth where service is not available. Rather than delivering connectivity from the ground through cell towers and cables, or from space via satellites, Loon says it is building a "third layer" in the stratosphere.
"While this sounds like a far-off, science-fiction future, it's not. Just look to Kenya," Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post.
"What once seemed outlandish, is now proving my former self wrong with every person connected and every megabyte of data consumed from the stratosphere. What we're seeing in Kenya today is the laying of the foundation for a third layer of connectivity."
The internet service has already been used by Kenyans for voice calls, video calls and for using apps like YouTube and WhatsApp, Loon said. One internet speed test in the country demonstrated a download speed of 18.9Mbps (megabits per second) and upload speed of 4.74Mbps.
The development highlights a growing trend of large tech companies looking to Africa for high-growth investment opportunities. The continent has the highest concentration of young people in the world, according to the UN, but just over a quarter of the population has internet access.
It also comes as demand for internet services has skyrocketed thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown measures to contain it.
Loon is one of many Alphabet subsidiaries that began life in Google's X research and development facility. Others include Waymo, which makes self-driving car technology, and Wing, which aims to deliver products via drones.