Loon internet balloon in California in 2015
Cheaper than digging cables, Loon’s internet balloons beam 4G internet signals down to remote areas © Reuters

Floating 12 miles above the earth, high above commercial aircraft, internet balloons offer the possibility of online connection for hundreds of millions of people living in emerging markets. Loon, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has launched its first commercial project in Kenya. Success will lead more countries to seek a deal.

Loon has already proved that its polyethylene, solar-powered helium balloons work by providing internet access to hurricane-hit Puerto Rico. Kenya is a test of whether the service can be profitable. Cheaper than digging cables, the balloons use algorithms to navigate air currents and stay in one place, beaming 4G internet signals down to remote areas. 

Like self-driving car company Waymo, Loon is a graduate of Google’s moonshots R&D lab. The unit could do with some good publicity. New Alphabet boss Sundar Pichai has implied that costs connected to the company’s “other bets” need to fall. 

Offering internet access to emerging economies is a worthy, and potentially lucrative, goal. Poverty and low population density in emerging markets stymie online access while US tech giants that have saturated home markets are keen to sign up new customers. As well as services, access would provide more personal data — so long as governments refrain from implementing new privacy laws. 

Chart showing African broadband access and internet users

While Google reaches for the sky, Facebook has stayed closer to earth with Free Basics, which works with local telecoms companies to give users access to certain internet sites — including Facebook — for free. It is also working with multiple partners, including China Mobile International and Vodafone, to build submarine fibre-optic cables that will connect Europe, the Middle East and Africa. 

Across Africa, online access varies widely. Nigeria has almost 124m internet users, making it one of the world’s biggest online populations. Countries such as Tunisia and Ghana have more mobile subscriptions than people. Yet according to the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency, internet access costs are still too high for the majority of people in the continent. Just over 25 per cent of the sub-Saharan population is online, according to World Bank data.

A project to achieve universal internet coverage by 2030 could cost $100bn, says working group Broadband for All. The shorter term target to double broadband connections between 2016 and 2021 will cost $9bn. For US tech companies, however, the chance of winning more users make it worth the investment. 

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