X, an Alphabet company focused on developing moonshot technology solutions, has announced that it is shutting down Loon, the internet balloon business that had promised to help increase the last mile access to the internet. This news is of great interest in Kenya because this was the place where Loon had its first commercial pilot project which started in Kenya in July 2020.
This was promising because it was supposed to help one of the biggest challenges in connecting rural and remote areas; the high cost of putting up infrastructure and low returns due to low population.
The balloons are meant to cover a wider area with 4G internet than is possible to cover using a Base Transmission Station. For example, if one Base Station covers a 1 km2 region, a balloon could cover a 200 km2 region, an area that would require 200 BTS to cover. Installing 200 BTS is expensive, and may not make economic sense in the areas that are sparsely populated. Using the Loon balloons would have made it easy to cover such areas.
While the project is coming to an end, it is worth celebrating the milestone achieved and engineers will better place to figure out what else could work. We can say that we have discovered one more way on how not to achieve digital inclusion. The technologies worked, but it was not commercially viable.
Learning from Loon's failure
However, all is not lost and one of the key technologies developed in the program is being tested for a different use. The high bandwidth optical communication allows transfer of data over a distance of 20 km at 20Gbps. This uses a small beam of light that is not visible, and is just like optical fiber communication but without the cable.
This technology can help connect difficult to reach places, especially where it is hard to lay fiber cables due to terrain challenges. It will also help ease pressure on the available spectrum since it solely relies on light to transfer data.
As engineers at Loon wrap up and move on to other projects, I am hopeful that the world is one step closer to helping the people in many parts of the world get affordable internet.
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