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Alphabet's Loon internet balloons launch in Kenya in first commercial deployment

CNET logo CNET 7/7/2020 Richard Nieva
a close up of a desert field with a mountain in the background: One of Loon's balloons after launch. Loon © Provided by CNET One of Loon's balloons after launch. Loon

Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, said Tuesday that it's launched a fleet of high-flying balloons over Kenya to beam internet signals down to the country's population. 

The launch marks the first commercial deployment of the technology, which up till now has been tested only in emergency situations, including three years ago in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria swept across the island. The deployment is also the first in Africa, the most underserved region in the world when it comes to internet access. 

For the launch, Loon partnered with the wireless company Telkom Kenya to provide connectivity to its subscribers. Like floating cellular towers, a fleet of almost three dozen balloons, which fly about 60,000 feet in the air, will send 4G LTE signals down to the ground. The signals will blanket more than 30,000 square miles of the country, including rural areas as well as Kenya's capital, Nairobi. 

a close up of a desert field with a mountain in the background: Google headquarters in Mountain View, California © Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google headquarters in Mountain View, California

Loon was born out of X, Alphabet's self-described moonshot factory for experimental projects, which has also developed the company's driverless car and delivery drone services. Loon, which debuted in 2015, was spun out into its own division two years ago. 

For Google, the project isn't just about altruism. It's good business. The more people the company can get online, the more people it can persuade to use its services -- like search, maps and YouTube. Loon says about 35,000 people in Kenya have already connected to the network in early tests.

Loon doesn't want to replace the existing infrastructure for wireless connections, but instead add to it, says CEO Allistair Westgarth. Right now broadband is delivered via two "layers": from the ground with cell towers and fiber-optic cables, and from space with satellites. Loon wants to build another layer in the stratosphere, he said.

"What we're seeing in Kenya today is the laying of the foundation for a third layer of connectivity," Westgarth wrote in a blog post. "It was a long time in the making, and there is still a lot of work to be done to establish this new layer of connectivity." 

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