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Vodacom floats Google’s Loon for balloon broadband in Moz

Google-owner Alphabet’s Loon partners with Vodacom to bring network access to Mozambique via a network of floating cell phone towers operating 20 kilometres above the Earth

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The Internet is being expanded across rural Mozambique via balloon-based cellphone “towers”.

Alphabet’s Loon and Vodacom have signed a deal to use Loon’s balloon-powered Internet solution to expand the Vodacom network in Mozambique. In terms of the agreement, Loon will help Vodacom provide service to un-served and under-served parts of the country with a network of floating cell phone “towers” – in reality, signal transmitters – that operate 20 kilometres above Earth. 

Alphabet is the holding company of Google, which first floated the Loon concept in New Zealand in 2013. Loon uses a network of high-altitude balloons to deliver connectivity to people in areas where it has previously been difficult to provide services. Loon balloons operate well above commercial air traffic, weather events, and wildlife. The balloons act as floating base stations that extend the reach of a mobile network operator’s service.

Launched from the United States, the balloons can navigate around the world by sailing on winds in the stratosphere. Once above a location needing service, the balloons can be arranged in small clusters to provide periods of prolonged connectivity below. The balloons are designed to fly for hundreds of days. When ready to come down, the balloons are navigated to a sparsely populated area and brought down for a controlled landing. Once on the ground, the balloon and components are collected by local recovery experts. An overview of how Loon works can be found here.

Using the Loon solution, Vodacom will expand mobile network access to Cabo Delgado and Niassa provinces, two regions that have proven hard to cover in the past due to the vast and logistically challenging geographical areas, together with low population density. The Loon solution will provide a 4G service that supports Data, Voice, SMS and USSD, which will also enable mobile financial services. 

The service will be available to any Vodacom subscriber with a standard 4G-VoLTE enabled handset and SIM card. Users will not need to do anything special to connect to the service; they will connect just as they would to a normal cell tower. In fact, it’s unlikely that a user will know that they are connected to the service provided by a high altitude balloon, except for the fact that they may have a signal in a location where it previously did not exist.

“Vodacom’s partnership with Loon is a perfect example of how technological innovation can connect the most rural communities in Africa,” says Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub. “We are pleased to be part of this initiative in Mozambique, which is helping to bridge the digital divide. This is even more pertinent in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, where more Mozambicans will now have access to healthcare information through our Loon partnership. We look forward to forging similar partnerships and projects across the continent, as we ensure that no one is left behind when it comes to accessing the global digital economy.”

Loon and Vodacom have been working collaboratively with Mozambican communications and aviation regulators, including Autoridade Reguladora das Comunicações de Moçambique (ARECOM) and the Institute for Civil Aviation of Mozambique (IACM), to obtain the necessary approvals to enable service in Mozambique.

Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth says: “We’re extremely pleased to be partnering with Vodacom, one of Africa’s largest mobile network operators, to begin serving parts of Mozambique in the coming months. Vodacom has a big footprint in Southern Africa, and provides service to tens of millions of people across multiple countries every single day. We view this as the first step to a larger partnership that will allow us to serve more of those users throughout Africa.”

The companies are grateful to have received approvals to start importing and installing the required ground infrastructure for Loon’s balloons to operate in the stratosphere above the country, and for Loon to provide service over the Vodacom network.

Vodacom Mozambique chief technology officer Pedro Rabacal says: “Vodacom Mozambique is excited and proud to be able to bring the latest technological innovation to some of the most remote areas of the country. In times such as these, it is more important than ever that we find ways to ensure that we expand our coverage and services and that our customers have access to critical hygiene and lifesaving information. This partnership with Loon offers a key solution that will significantly accelerate Vodacom’s 4G coverage to areas of Mozambique that have been challenging to service. Our aim is to expand and push to the edge of coverage so as to provide the same quality voice, data, sms and M-Pesa services to all Mozambicans.

“This agreement symbolises yet another advance in the field of mobile communications technologies in the country and will allow greater connectivity for Mozambicans in any geography. With this action, we reaffirm our position as a company focused on innovation and, above all, on providing an increasingly better experience to our customers. We have ambitions to continue to grow with more modern and comprehensive solutions by improving the quality of our services and responding positively to the needs of Mozambicans.”

In the coming months, Loon and Vodacom will work together to continue installing terrestrial infrastructure, which will serve as the physical connection point for Loon’s balloons to Vodacom’s internet and core network. Loon will also begin flying balloons above Mozambique to learn the stratospheric wind patterns on which the balloons must navigate to remain above the service area. Network integration testing is ongoing in order to ensure that this innovative solution works as intended. Loon and Vodacom expect to begin providing service to users in the coming months.

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