A look at Kenya’s balloon powered 4G initiative
A balloon powered 4G transmitting invention by Leon has generated bulk of a news throughout the previous month of August in Kenya. Loon, a company known to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas through balloons and had formerly provided balloon off-lifting services during an earthquake emergency in Peru, is a division of Google’s Alphabet company. It partners Kenya’s third largest telecom operator, Telkom in this particular venture.
This is the first commercial application of an internet relaying platform powered by floating balloons. The unique venture sees modified balloons serve as “floating cell towers” instead of telecom masts. These “internet balloons” which are kept powered by solar panels transmit internet signals in their area of orbit.
Balloon powered 4G — The partnership with Telkom
Loon’s partnership with Telkom and the government of Kenya to build the 4G powered balloons started two years ago in 2018.
While the government and some advocates of the project have acknowledged the importance of the 4G balloons in advancing the country’s broadband and technological status, others, particularly in the industry, have argued that it should have been initiated in another country, likely a country with lesser broadband penetration rate. These technology experts buttress their opinion on the fact that Kenya already has far more of its citizens connected to the internet than many other countries, with an estimated number of 39 million out of 48 million people.
The cost of realising the project, the bearers of it, including how a possible revenue is to be shared has yet to get into public domain. Nonetheless, the technical overview of it has been widely discussed.
Details of the balloon
The size of the balloons is described to be similar to a tennis court. The size mainly occupied by the components of a cell tower made into the balloons. Due to its strength coupled with its faint weight, sheets of polyethylene are employed in the making of them.
The balloons engineered to fly within the stratosphere [20km (12.4 miles) above sea level] are reportedly launched in the US, making their way to Kenya by wind currents. Airplanes would fly well below these floating transmitters.
The about 35 balloons which have been floated would have nearly 31,000-square-mile area under its coverage. This includes the central and western Kenya and the capital, Nairobi.
In one of its tests, an uplink speed of 4.74 mbps, a downlink speed of 18.9 mbps and latency of 19 milliseconds (ms) was gotten. These impressive speeds were engaged to use with applications such as email, web browsing, data calls e.g via WhatsApp, video calls and YouTube. More than 35,000 users, mostly on remote areas of the country, were reportedly connected to broadband service through these balloons.
Being powered by the sun rays incident on the panels means that these floating base stations have limited time of activity. Broadband connectivity through these balloons is between 6:00 am to 9:00 pm each day. By virtue of this, all subscribers who might have gotten reception of the network in their remote locations would return to a state of no-receptivity when evening dawns.
Balloon powered 4G — Wind currents and other hinderances
One of the hurdles which Loon and Telkom would have to overcome is directing the direction of travel of these balloons. To this, Loon says its advanced machine learning algorithms are conditioning to reduce these effects.
The 4G powered balloons would last for about 100 days in the sky before being brought down in a controlled descent. This limited time in the sky denotes that ground cell stations are still a favourite where durability is considered.
Restricted airspaces and short life-span are some of the other hindrances to this project.
Loon would try to do better than Facebook’s Aquila project which was abandoned in 2018 after serial setbacks. The Aquila project fairly similar to the one by Loon had solar-powered drones serving as relay stations for providing internet access to remote areas.
Nonetheless, with Africa having the lowest internet penetration rate among the regions in the world, where about only 28 percent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people engaged on the internet in 2019 according to the International Telecommunication Union, the project if successful would better this rate.
This balloon powered 4G project is a purely data rendering service. This project to a certain extent is similar to Elon musk’s starlink internet satellites.