Internet users in Uganda are paying some of the highest rates than elsewhere in the region. On average Ugandans pay Ugx. 17,231 for 1GB of data, the second highest in East Africa behind Tanzania where 1GB costs Ugx. 21,787. That may be a thing of the past sooner than later.
Part of the problem is the high operational costs – network rollout telecom companies incur. According to industry experts network rollout and management accounts anywhere between 35 to 40%. These costs are transferred to the consumers.
The Good News
A US firm, Loon LLC, using balloons flying in the space will reduce the costs telecoms incur and the benefit will be enjoyed by Ugandans in reduced data and voice costs. Owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Large balloons carry solar-powered equipment high in the sky to send high-speed internet signals to the ground.
Loon’s business strategy hinges on making deals with telecoms and having its balloons augment the service provided by these firms
In other words, they overcame all the things that make the idea of delivering internet access with high-flying balloons not just crazy, but nearly impossible.
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.
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.
Big implications to the economy
Speaking to journalists at the signing of the Letter of Agreement Between Loon and Uganda Civil Avation Authority (UCAA) in Kampala on Monday, Stephen Kaboyo, the Local Advisor for Loon said ‘ ‘ the timing is significant. The entry of Loon will have big implication on the economy. The project will create jobs, connect the unconnected at affordable rates. The project will also bring a host of other benefits’’
‘ ‘ This is beginning of digitizing our economy’’ he added.
Dr. Anna Prouse, the Head of Government Business relations at Loon revealed that Balloons also offer disaster relief.
The sky-based system already showed success in temporary service launches in Peru and Puerto Rico during natural disasters. She says balloons were operational in May after a powerful earthquake struck a rural part of Peru. In the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, Loon balloons were deployed after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. In both cases, the equipment was provided for free to make up for internet signals that had been cut.
The US Ambassador to Uganda Deborah Malac observed that just like other US firms, Loon brings quality services, quality jobs, better pay and training to Uganda.
Hon Aggrey Bagiire, the state minister for works and Transport revealed that the project will bring more revenue to government coffers.
‘‘Besides bringing faster and cheaper connection, connecting Ugandans in remote areas, Loon will pay Uganda government for using its airspace.’’ He said.
The sky-based system can deploy to areas where there are too few people to support the building of signal equipment on the ground.
Dr. David Kakuba, the Director General of CAA, says safety aspects have been adequately taken care of.
The balloons are filled with gas that is lighter than air and rise up to 20 kilometers into the sky – a height twice as high as airplanes fly. This helps the balloons avoid weather problems and wildlife. Loon balloons move through the skies by wind currents that carry them up and down during the flight path
‘‘Balloons fly over 60.000 feet above sea level. The highest plane flies at 36,000 feet above sea level, leaving more than 14,000 free space’’ Dr, Kakuba said.
Loon is already operating in other African countries including Botswana, Nigeria, South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, DRC, Congo Brazzaviile, Mozambaique and Kenya
How exactly does Loon work?
The balloons are similar in practice to traditional weather balloons, floating at 60,000 feet above sea level, and can cover areas within a 25-mile radius. They offer fourth-generation (4G) wireless connectability and are steered by artificial intelligence.
All of Loon’s deals require a telecom partner, allowing them to provide the same service consumers would get from typical masts, according to BBC.