Project Loon, the Internet-delivering balloon system that grew out of Alphabet’s Project X division, has announced its first commercial deal. According to multiplereports, the recent Project X graduates will partner with Telkom Kenya to increase connectivity in the country.
“Connectivity is critical. If you are not online, you are left out,” Joe Mucheru, Kenya’s information, communication, and technology minister, told Reuters.
“Loon is another technology that is being introduced that the licensed operators hopefully can be able to use.”
Public details of the deal appear scarce for now—no firm timeframe for deployment or financial details were available as of press time. The BBC notes that with this new partnership, Telkom Kenya will provide the Internet signal, and Loon will spread it over remote areas of Kenya.
Loon initially started in 2011 within Alphabet/then-Google’s experimental Project X division. The basic idea was that, instead of building permanent physical structures with limited range, bunches of antenna-outfitted balloons could fly 60,000 feet above the ground, follow semi-regular wind patterns, and cover areas of roughly 2,000 square miles at a time. The company has simulated 30 million kilometers of potential navigation daily to better understand how jet streams and weather patterns will impact its preferred balloon routes.
Over time, Loon’s solar-powered balloons and overall system have steadily improved. The project started off aiming for 3G-levels of connectivity, but in 2015 it progressed to the point of providing 4G across an area as big as Rhode Island. Wired recently toured the Project X factory right before Loon spun off as its own company, and the Loon team mentioned smoother launches (with the ability to deploy a balloon every half hour and keep them in the air for six months or more) and stronger signals (its latest system will potentially support 10 times as many users as the previous iteration).
Up until now, the project has been limited. Loon held beta tests in places like New Zealand, Brazil, and Central California. Later, Loon launched select limited deployments, such as working to connect areas of Peru following mass floods and a high-profile effort to help connect people in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Working with local governments, Loon has publicly stated that effort helped bring connectivity to more than 200,000 people on the island.
According to the BBC and Reuters, the goal with the Kenyan deployment is to improve connectivity for large swaths of the country not currently covered by mobile providers. In many such locations, building physical connectivity infrastructure has proven difficult. While some local experts expressed concerns to these news outlets—noting the potential for dependency on a single foreign company or affordability being a long-term worry—everyone involved seems to believe some connectivity certainly beats no connectivity for the time being.