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Internet blimps are coming to Zanzibar. But can a UK company succeed where Google failed?

UK company World Mobile is launching a hybrid network using aerostats -- blimp-like tethered balloons that it says will provide near-blanket coverage across the islands.

Two solar-powered, helium-filled balloons will float 300 meters (984 feet) above land and have a broadcast range of around 70 kilometers (44 miles) apiece, using 3G and 4G frequencies to deliver their signal. The balloons can survive winds of up to 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour) and stay airborne for up to 14 days before descending for refilling. In the few hours of downtime, other aerostats will be airborne, ensuring users are never without service, says the company.

The signal from an aerostat -- used as a low altitude platform station (LAPS) -- is sufficient for tasks like internet browsing and email, says World Mobile. Meanwhile, construction is underway for a network of nodes on the ground, each able to provide WiFi for hundreds of people with speeds sufficient for video streaming and gaming. The network comprising 125 locations is scheduled for completion this year and the first balloon will launch in June.

"Zanzibar represents a really interesting opportunity," World Mobile CEO Micky Watkins tells CNN. "It's approximately one and a half million people on the islands. It's like a small country."

Where others have failed

World Mobile will be aiming to succeed where larger companies have failed. Facebook's Project Aquila, an internet delivery system using high altitude drones, was closed in 2018. Loon, which used stratospheric balloons to deliver internet connectivity, and was part of Google parent company Alphabet, folded in January 2021. Project Aquila and Loon were designed to provide the internet to remote areas using high altitude platform station (HAPS) systems. Loon was used in disaster relief efforts, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017 (Loon partnered with CNN parent company AT&T to do so...
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