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Alphabet’s internet balloons remain grounded in Kenya

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FINANCIAL TIMES 12 MAR 2020

An ambitious project by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to use giant balloons to beam high-speed internet to remote parts of Kenya remains grounded by bureaucracy almost two years after it was announced. 

A commercial trial with the African country’s third-biggest telecoms operator, Telkom Kenya, is still waiting for regulatory approval some 20 months after it was unveiled. The plan is to use solar-powered balloons to broadcast a 4G internet signal in remote areas where traditional mobile masts do not exist. 

The two companies need authorization from the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and the Ministry of Transport to fly the balloons. 

Telkom Kenya said that “strategically located ground stations” had been established in Nyeri, a town 60 miles north of the capital Nairobi, but said it could not confirm when it would receive the final approvals to launch the service.

“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 company said. Joseph Mucheru, Kenya’s minister for information, communications and technology, said the project still had his full support.

Everyone is working to get it there, he said. We are 100 per cent behind it, we are just a bit slow in our bureaucracy.

A spokesperson for Loon said: “For the past few months, we’ve been working with the government of Kenya to formalize the details of our planned flight operations. We expect these details to be finalized soon, at which point we will begin flying balloons in Kenya.” 

Despite the delay, Loon, which was created in Alphabet’s X research unit before being spun out into a separate business in 2018, has raised money from investors including SoftBank and has announced a tie-up to launch similar balloons in Peru.

Some of X’s other ventures have recently been shut down, as Alphabet’s new chief executive, Sundar Pichai, focuses on streamlining the company’s so-called “other bets”.

Makani, which aimed to generate wind energy with kites, was wound up last month. Kenya, with a population of about 50m, has long been a pioneer of new technology.

Its revolutionary mobile money service M-Pesa, launched in 2007, is used by two in five Kenyans and mobile penetration exceeds 100 per cent, according to the communications authority. Telkom said Loon’s technology will enable it to reach clients in remote and mountainous areas where accessibility remains a challenge

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