Loon, Google-owner Alphabet’s spin-off company that was established to bring an internet connection in remote areas using giant hot air balloons, is suffering delays to its proposed launch in Kenya. Announced two years ago, the project, and Loon’s giant balloons, remain grounded due to bureaucratic red tape in the east African country.
The planned commercial trial of using hot air balloons to broadcast a high speed 4G internet signal in regions of Kenya that lack a traditional mobile masts infrastructure is a partnership with Telkom Kenya, the country’s third largest telecoms provider. However, the regulatory approval needed before the balloons can be launched has now dragged out for 20 months. Approval from both the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority and Ministry of transport is needed.
Pretty much everything else is in place including, say Telkom Kenya, the ground stations that balloons will take off from and return to. They have been readied in Nyeri, a mid-sized town around 60 miles north of capital Nairobi in Kenya’s Central Highlands between the eastern slopes of the Great Rift Valley and the western slopes of Mount Kenya.
Loon declined to a request from the Financial Times for comment but Telkom Kenya said it doesn’t know at this stage when it will receive approval to move forward and fly the balloons:
“The start of the service will be greatly informed by the outcome of the pilot as well as the reception of regulatory approvals from the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and the Ministry of Transport, that we are currently waiting for.”
The Kenyan government does, however, still appear to be onside, if unwilling to step in to speed things up. Minister for information Joseph Mucheru commented:
“Everyone is working to get it there. We are 100 per cent behind it, we are just a bit slow in our bureaucracy.”
In 2018, Loon was spun out of Alphabet X, the tech giant’s research and development unit that has also produced companies such as driverless technology company Waymo and delivery drones company Wing. Some of the unit’s ventures, such as Makani, which was working on generating wind power from kites, have been discontinued in recent months as new chief exec Sundar Pichai moves to cut back on Alphabet’s ‘other bets’, which eat up cash and often don’t reach commercialisation.
However, having attracted investment from the likes of SoftBank and with plans for a similar tie-up to that in Kenya having been recently announced, Loon’s immediate future appears secure.
The Kenya project is expected to get the go ahead eventually, even if the timeline is currently unclear. The country has developed a reputation as being open to technological innovation, with the mobile money service M-Pesa, launched back in 2007, a successful example of how tech has been embraced to overcome structural and logistics issues in the country. M-Pesa has achieved relatively main stream adoption and is used by 2 out of every 5 Kenyans.
With internet access seen as key to the economic development of isolated regions in emerging economies, Loon is a commercial project with a strong humanitarian side to it. Access to education, basic financial services and employment opportunities are all anticipated outcomes of the company successfully bringing remote regions online.
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