Solar-powered balloons doubling as cell towers could soon address the digital divide in rural Peru. Loon, the Alphabet subsidiary that uses stratospheric balloons to provide mobile internet to remote regions, announced today (Nov. 20) that it has signed a commercial deal to provide service to parts of the Amazon rainforest in Peru.
It won’t be the first time Loon’s balloons make their ascent above Peru. After a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck Peru back in May and crippled its infrastructure, Loon dispatched its balloons to connect people on the ground, and sent balloons to three cities after serious flooding hit northern Peru in 2017. It did the same in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
But unlike previous occasions, this will be the first time Loon’s balloons will be used as a permanent solution for internet connectivity, instead of a temporary fix after a natural disaster. The clear, tennis court-sized balloons are designed to remain in the air for 150 days at a time. Loon has been working on increasing the lifespan of its balloons, and it broke a record this summer by launching a balloon that stayed aloft for 223 days.
The project has the backing of Big Tech, multilateral banks, and one of the world’s largest telecoms companies. Loon struck a deal with Internet Para Todos Perú (IpT), a rural mobile operator that was launched by Telefónica, Facebook, the Inter-American Development Bank’s private sector arm (IDB Invest) and Corporacion Andina de Fomento (CAF). At Mobile World Congress in February, the group announced their intention to connect 6 million people in rural Peru by 2021.
The deal between IpT and Loon will still need to be approved by Peru’s Ministry of Transport and Communications. If all goes well, Loon and IpT hope to deliver mobile internet service beginning in 2020. The initiative will focus on Peru’s Loreto region, which makes up nearly one third of the country and is home to many of its indigenous peoples. Loon will initially cover 15 percent of Loreto, potentially reaching nearly 200,000 inhabitants.
Internet access has been a longstanding challenge in Peru. An estimated 80% of Peruvian localities, most of which were rural, lacked internet coverage in 2016, according to the nation’s Fund for Investment in Telecommunications (FITEL). Mobile operators have largely neglected the nation’s rural areas, which are divided by miles of mountains, rivers, and the Amazon rainforest. In such terrain, an above-ground solution like a balloon could be a better fit than building a cell tower.
If Loon’s efforts to use balloons for prolonged periods in Peru is successful, it could open the doors to connect even more remote regions around the world. The company also has a contract in Kenya with Telkom Kenya, and is awaiting final regulatory approval to begin its first commercial trial in the nation.