After months of on-the-ground progress, Loon and Vodacom are eyeing a September launch of balloon-powered internet service in Mozambique. Loon, an Alphabet company that uses high-altitude balloons to beam internet to remote areas, and Vodacom, one of Africa’s largest mobile network operators, signed a deal in May to bring the Loon service to Mozambique.
Diego Gutierrez, Vodacom Group International Markets Chief Officer says “Vodacom and Loon look forward to the imminent launch of our expanded rural internet coverage in Mozambique. In light of the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic across the continent, reliable network coverage becomes even more critical to keep remote communities connected. These types of powerful technological partnerships are key to helping the continent bridge the digital divide.”
Alastair Westgarth, Loon’s CEO says “We’re incredibly pleased with the progress we have made to date to launch balloon-powered internet in Mozambique. Collaboration with Vodacom, regulators, and government stakeholders has been key in allowing us to prepare for the launch of service next month. Now more than ever, connectivity is an essential part of daily life. We look forward to expanding connectivity in Mozambique and delivering on our mission of connecting people everywhere.”
Despite the logistical challenges posed by COVID-19, Loon and Vodacom have been able to install a number of ground stations across Mozambique, each of which are strategically located to enable 4G LTE service to the provinces of Cabo Delgado and Niassa — two regions that have proven hard to cover in the past due to their vast and logistically challenging geographies.
These ground-based installations are the balloons’ physical access point to the internet and the Vodacom core network. As long as one balloon is within range of a ground station, that balloon can beam connectivity to other balloons in the fleet, creating stratospheric mesh networks of connectivity that can spread the internet over extended areas. Loon routinely creates mesh networks of 10 to 20 balloons, all connected through one or more ground stations. In this way, Loon can provide 4G LTE service over vast areas far from where ground-based internet infrastructure currently exists.
With the ground stations installed, Loon and Vodacom have started validating the installations and testing with balloons overhead. Just recently, the two companies made their first balloon-to-ground and balloon-to-balloon connections, a key step in the network validation process required for service to commence. With a small test fleet of five balloons operating over northern Mozambique, a connection was established between a balloon and a ground station located in the province of Niassa. That connectivity-enabled balloon then created a mesh network with four nearby balloons operating in the stratosphere above Mozambique.
In the coming weeks leading up to the planned September launch of service, Loon and Vodacom will conduct additional network testing with more balloons over Mozambique, collect wind data to inform Loon’s autonomous navigation system, and, finally, begin testing LTE service levels in the identified coverage areas.
Earlier this month, Loon launched the world’s first large-scale, commercial deployment of balloon-powered internet in Kenya. Serving data from 20km above Earth, Loon’s internet balloons are providing service over a 50,000 square kilometer region that encompasses central and western parts of Kenya. In the first weeks of service, Loon and Telkom Kenya have served tens of thousands of Kenyans – including Kenya’s Communications Minister, who used the service to video chat with the President of Kenya from a remote area where previously residents had to travel 60km to access the internet.