Google and Meta’s new subsea cables mark a tectonic shift in how the internet works, and who controls it.One sunny Thursday morning in September 2021, three men gathered at the Multimedia University of Kenya, in Nairobi, for a small ceremony. The usually pristine grass of the campus was brown and dry. Jacaranda petals, fallen off the trees but still vibrantly purple, littered the ground, and a troop of baboons rummaged through garbage cans for leftover food. Inside the university’s ICT Museum, which showcases developments in communications technology, the men turned their attention to an object at the center of the room.
Above a table crowded with old oscilloscopes, printers, and telephones, hung a lone box, white apart from two black solar panels fanning out from its top. Gray antennae protruded beneath, trussed like the legs of an oil rig. This jerry-built device was among the last remaining specimens of Loon, what had been Google’s “moonshot” project to connect rural Africa and other locations to the internet, using balloons floating in the stratosphere.