With most of Kenya under a Covid-19 induced containment, most citizens have acquired a new appreciation for the Internet and the powers it brings to them.
If we previously thought of the Internet as a dispensable utility service, that thinking has been calibrated owing to the current context. Our broadband capabilities have kept us going in this Covid-19 phase. Internet-enabled mobile payments, video-conferencing, entertainment, and digital learning, have all replaced face-to-face interaction to help us transact business remotely, work, learn, communicate with friends and family – literally, the Internet was built for this precise moment.
The fact that our broadband ecosystem can manage to handle the unexpected burst of Internet traffic users, single-handedly driving the biggest Internet usage in years, at this time, is a silent win for the painstaking Internet penetration efforts in Kenya.
Yet, millions of people in parts of the country have subpar or nonexistent Internet services, and even those who have access, often do not embrace services, because of restrictions arising from limited affordability, perceived value, and the ability to use the services.
Previous efforts to solve this gaping hole through policy development, like the Kenya Information and Communication (Amendment) Act, has provided critical leadership towards the deployment of communications infrastructure and services in the country.
The establishment of a Universal Service Fund (USF) by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) has seen more programs targeting to increase coverage gaps in mobile networks and bring broadband connectivity into towns and villages where broadband is currently unavailable.
The geographical realities of some underserved areas have spawned a newfound appreciation for innovative approaches to bridge the mobile and broadband access gap.
The recent announcement of a partnership between Telkom Kenya and Loon INC. (a subsidiary of Alphabet) to deploy an innovative 4G/LTE solution, through a network of balloons, is such an initiative. It has cemented broadband innovation beyond proof that previously unreached and inaccessible populations can be Internet served.
Initial coverage areas have already been identified, starting with Nairobi, Machakos, Nyeri, Nakuru, Kitui, Nanyuki, Narok and into Kisii. Telkom and Loon will thereafter work to expedite service deployment, progressively, to other areas, to also support the Kenya Government’s efforts to address and manage the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
This new technology will also complement Telkom’s ongoing strategy to further widen our network coverage, more so at a time such as this, during the pandemic. In the past month for example, we have seen a sharp increase in data usage on our network – a 50 percent spike in data consumption – due to an increased number of users, be they business owners, employees, teachers, students, and other professionals, who must now minimise their movement but still meet their daily obligations.
This spike in the network is most notable in residential areas that had not been initially dimensioned to support such unusually high traffic and to this end, Telkom is already expediting a network optimisation and rebalancing exercise across the country, starting off with areas that we have identified needing immediate intervention.
Operating at a distance of approximately 60,000 feet above sea level, well above air traffic, wildlife and weather events, essentially ‘towers in the sky’, these Loon balloons will act as floating base stations, ceasing to be ‘terrestrial infrastructure’ and acting as a strategic mobile and more importantly airborne component of the mobile network.
Once in operation, these balloons or floating base stations are linked to ground stations, connected to an existing network (in this case, Telkom’s) that employs millimeter wave spectrum to send connectivity from the ground, to the floating base stations overhead.
Basically, Internet connectivity is beamed from these ground stations to the floating base stations. From there, a signal can be sent across multiple floating base stations, creating a network of floating base stations that will serve a wide coverage area, delivering connectivity directly to a user’s LTE-enabled device, below.
This novel technology is not a substitute for traditional infrastructure. It is in fact an opportunity to enhance wider coverage for the underserved and marginalised, with each balloon capable of delivering a 10,000 square km cone of 4G/LTE connectivity within a 60 kilometre radius.
As with any technological transition, the Loon/Telkom partnership demonstrates how the telecoms industry is building a global communications network.
John Barorot, Chief Technology Officer, Telkom Kenya.