KAMPALA – Solar-powered balloons doubling as cell towers could soon address the digital divide in rural Uganda a few months after launching commercial operations in neighboring Kenya.
Loon LLC, the Alphabet subsidiary that uses stratospheric balloons to provide mobile internet to remote regions, on Monday, December 9, signed a letter of agreement with the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCCA), to fly over Ugandan skies.
UCCA Director General, David Kakuba said prior to the signing of the agreement, Loon LCC has been operating trials over various countries in Africa including Uganda over the last few years.
He said all the trials were fortunately successful culminating into the signing of the letter of agreement with Uganda to facilitate regular overflights of Loon balloons to Kenya.
US Ambassador to Uganda HE. Deborah Malac and Uganda’s Minister of State for Works and Transport Aggrey Bagiire witnessed the signing of the letter of the agreement at Serena Hotel in Kampala whose signatories were Dr. Kakuba and Dr. Anna Prouse, the Head of Government Relations at Loon LLC.
The agreement grants Loon LCC access to Ugandan space to facilitate its regular overflights.
Mr. Bagiire said Uganda is this kind of technology doesn’t interfere with anyone compared to physical masts where people have complained severally of dangerous electronic magnetic waves.
He also denied that ‘My Ug’ a government initiative to provide internet to Uganda has failed.
He said much that both looks at providing similar services, Loon has more services than the others.
“As the government, we aren’t investing in, it’s not a PPP, they are moving in the space and offer services that were alluded to it,” he said.
He said every time their balloons cross through Uganda, they will pay taxes to the government.
This website understands that the project which has the backing of President Yoweri Museveni will soon be rolled out in Uganda.
Dr. Prouse, to this website that President Museveni warmly welcomed the idea and endorsed the project before directing responsible government agencies including Ministry of ICT, Ministry of Transport and Works and the army leadership to ensure that Loon commences operations in Uganda.
The President is a strong proponent of new technologies. He previously ordered the army and other government entities to adopt new technologies.
Now that the Company has been granted access to Ugandan airspace, it is awaiting final regulatory approval to begin its first commercial trial in the nation.
“Our vast experience in disaster management, steady fast internet connectivity, and communication has been our core in Puerto Rica, New Zealand, Sri Lanka among others. We are here to enable our services in Uganda and this just the beginning,” Prouse at the signing.
How it works
Uganda runs on mobile phones yet outside of urban centers, the infrastructure for mobile telephony is lacking.
Instead of building networks of ground-based cell towers that provide coverage spanning a few miles, Loon hangs antennas from tennis court-sized, helium-filled balloons flying 60,000 feet above Earth, far higher than commercial airliners, birds, and the weather.
Dr. Prouse said each polyethylene balloon can provide internet coverage over 2,000 square miles and stay aloft for months, making them well-suited to connect areas where low population density or difficult terrain prohibits building out cell tower networks.
The balloons have no propulsion system and rely on riding the wind to get to where they need to be. Ms. Prouse said being at the Equator, Uganda’s environment is very conducive for their balloon to operate in the skies.
The trick is that air currents at different altitudes head in different directions.
She revealed results from a few tests from the mountains of data from various government agencies and the flight patterns have shown their operations will be supported by the air conditions year running.
She also said balloons will be sent from Puerto Rico in Peru to Kenya through Uganda and DR Congo.
When Loon deployed balloons over Puerto Rico in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, each balloon was connected to its own ground station. That approach worked well for the island, according to Ms. Deborah Malac.
In Kenya, Loon LLC has spent half of the year testing things, before Telkom Kenya, which already has a contract with the American based company begins using the balloon-based network to provide mobile phone service to the country’s rural millions.
Additional reporting by Abraham Mutalyebwa