Kampala-Uganda is set to have floating masts to enhance communication and internet access in hard-to-reach and disaster prone areas in the country.
This was revealed on Monday during the signing of the Letter of Agreement in Kampala by officials from Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) and Loon LLC.
The floating masts will be suspended by balloons that are powered by solar energy.
They hover over areas that have poor internet and telecom network connectivity and places whose connectivity has been affected by disasters.
The agreement marks the commencement of balloons over-flights in Uganda’s airspace. They will fly 50,000 feet high into space, according to officials.
The State Minister for Works and Transport, Mr Aggrey Bagiire said Loon LLC, the company that will implement the project has met all the credentials and Uganda’s safety is guaranteed.
“The signed Letter of Agreement will provide for safe over flight of the balloons in Uganda’s airspace. It also caters for orderly descent and landing in case of an eventuality,” Mr Bagiire said.
He said that in the run up to signing of the agreement, initial tests through balloon over flights were successfully undertaken over the Ugandan airspace under the provisions of ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] annex 2-rules of the air relating to un-manned free balloons.
“Safety has therefore been adequately taken care of,” he said.
The same organisation was also cleared by the global aviation organisation to operate anywhere in the world.
“It is worth noting that Loon LLC has been endorsed by the ICAO, as meeting the International Aviation Standards and Recommended Practices. ICAO endorsement was affirmed at the 39th ICAO General Assembly in Montreal in 2016,” Mr Bagiire said.
Mr Bagiire said the Loon LLC has similar flight arrangements in Botswana, Nigeria, South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Mozambique and Kenya.
The Head of Government Relations at Loon LLC, Dr Anna Prouse did not reveal the cost of the investment.
How balloons will operate
According to Dr Prouse, Loon LLC will partner with local telecommunication companies to tap into their technology to allow connectivity.
“Today is step number one and the next step is to talk to local partners and start figuring out how to practically connect the unconnected areas in Uganda,” Dr Prouse said.
Dr Prouse said the programme will not be immediately implemented since details into the characteristics of Ugandan airspace like speed of wind have to be gathered before the balloon is launched into Ugandan space.
“One of the ideas is to start gathering wind data so that we know better how we can navigate the wind over Ugandan skies so that we can be more effective when we start commercial agreements,” Dr Prouse said.
She said this will be followed by getting connected to domestic telecommunication from whose stationed masts the signal will be picked before disseminated to areas with poor connectivity.
“We have to have a commercial deal and you have to be connected to a specific provider, to get the Loon LLC connection. The balloon will connect to physical cell tower of an operator, go up in the sky and then send the message to other balloons so that people in the middle of nowhere [with poor or no network connection] get connected,” Dr Prouse said.
However, she said, this will be realised if local partners agree to work with Loon LLC.
“We connect to the last existing cell tower from a telecomm [company]. We can start whenever we find a local partner who wants to work with us, because we don’t just fly over to get people get connected,” Dr Prouse said.