Google’s latest pet project, called Loon, is meant to deliver the Internet to new parts of the world via solar-powered balloons soaring through the stratosphere. Yet some technologists in Africa say the project may be unrealistic as a competitive networking solution for their continent.
The Google Loon service would (initially) only provide 3G connectivity, meaning that it would need to compete with cellular networks that are expanding and becoming ever cheaper to use. “In Kenya, most parts of the country have 3G access,” says Phares Kariuki, previously a technology consultant to the World Bank, who now leads an effort to build a supercomputing cluster at iHub, the tech startup space in Nairobi.
Even if Google managed to deliver faster speeds from future balloon fleets, they’d be solving the wrong problem, Kariuki adds: “The barrier to Internet adoption is not so much the lack of connectivity. It’s the high cost of the equipment.” People in poor areas simply can’t afford laptops and smartphones, Kariuki says, and generally prefer cheap feature phones.
Google’s Loon project manager, Mike Cassidy, says that even if some countries like Kenya have substantial 3G coverage, many others don’t. “We don’t think there is any one solution or one company that will have a solution for the whole world,” he says. “We just think that from what we’ve seen, there are huge swaths of people who don’t have connectivity.”
Affordable laptops and smartphones are being created using Google Android from Google’s chinese partners.