80% of Peruvian localities, most of which were rural, lacked internet coverage in 2016
Last week, an Alphabet Inc. subsidiary Loon, which uses stratospheric, autonomous balloons to deliver mobile internet to remote regions, has signed a commercial deal to provide service to parts of the Amazon rainforest in Peru. The solar-powered balloons will double as cell towers, and might be the key to addressing the digital divide in rural Peru.
According to the nation’s Fund for Investment in Telecommunications (FITEL), an estimated 80% of Peruvian localities, most of which were rural, lacked internet coverage in 2016. Divided by miles of mountains, rivers, and the Amazon rainforest, the Peruvian rural areas have been largely neglected by mobile operators. This rough, uneven terrain makes the building of traditional network infrastructure, like a cell tower, particularly challenging. An above-ground solution like a balloon, however, will be immune to such obstacles.
While, this won’t be the first time the company launched autonomous balloons above Peru, this will be the first time Loon’s balloons will be used as a permanent solution for internet connectivity. Previously, the balloons were used as a temporary fix following a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck back in May. The natural disaster destroyed Peru’s connectivity infrastructure, but the dispatched balloons were able to connect people on the ground.
This project will put the clear, tennis court-sized balloons in the air for 150 days at a time. A transmitter and receiver radios, along with navigation and communication technology are stored inside of the balloons, which are connected to a base station, which will have a fast wired broadband connection. The ballon can then beam that signal back down to mobile devices or other stations on the ground.
A few months ago, 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).
If the deal is approved by Peru’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, Loon and IpT hope to deliver mobile internet service beginning in 2020 with a focus on Peru’s Loreto region, which makes up nearly one third of the country and is home to many of its indigenous peoples. The initiative will begin with the coverage of 15 percent of Loreto, potentially reaching nearly 200,000 inhabitants.
At Mobile World Congress in February, Loon announced plans to connect 6 million people in rural Peru by 2021.
Loon has previously sent balloons to three cities after serious flooding hit northern Peru in 2017, as well as during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. 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.