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Is Google’s Project Loon the Future of Internet Connectivity or a Load of Hot Air?
If there’s one thing we know about Google it’s that they have no creative limits. Much like the dreams of the old man in the Pixar animation, Up, Google is reaching for the skies.
The internet is something most of us take for granted. It’s become such an ingrained part of our lives that if we were to suddenly lose it, all hell would break loose. We’re on our phones or computers all day long, and almost constantly connected to Wi-Fi or mobile data.
But believe it or not, more than 60% of the world’s population remains offline. 31% of people in the developing world use the internet, compared to 77% in developed countries.
The lack of internet in some locations comes as a serious disadvantage. In remote, poverty stricken areas, internet access could provide a valuable source of education and a means of contact for medical aid.
But the infrastructure in many of these areas is lacking and you might think it could be years, if ever, before these places will have internet connectivity.
Up, up and away
Since June 2013, Google has been working on Project Loon, a network of balloons traveling through the skies on the edge of space. The balloons are designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, fill internet coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.
Connected to the balloon is a small box of electronics, much like the basket of a hot air balloon. This box contains all the necessary parts for this project to soar: circuit boards that control the system and radio antennas to communicate with other balloons and with internet antennas on the ground. Sounds complex, because it is, and that’s before we consider the balloons.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a Loon balloon?
The inflatable part of the balloon is called a balloon envelope. Loon’s balloon envelopes are made from sheets of polyethylene plastic, measuring fifteen meters wide by twelve meters tall when fully inflated. A far-cry from blowing up balloons at children’s birthday parties!
Travelling approximately 20km above the Earth’s surface in the stratosphere, they are uniquely designed to face the challenges of operating at such high altitudes.
The air pressure of the stratosphere is 1% of that at sea level; there is reduced UV radiation protection due to the thin atmosphere too. To top it off, the temperature can fall as low as -80°C. These conditions are all very different and made designing the balloons a real challenge.
Careful design is essential to withstanding the demanding climate. The first goal was to maintain the balloons within the stratosphere for 100 days. During the early trials, Google were lucky to get it working for five days. With further advances, however, they have already reached their 100 day goal.
This is seriously impressive stuff by Google and really could change how internet connectivity works.
Navigating the high winds: how Loon works
Loon balloons use software algorithms to determine where the balloons need to go and then moves each one into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with winds that vary in speed and direction, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network.
Winds are steady in the stratosphere so Project Loon actually takes advantage of the high altitude and remains out of reach of weather events, airplanes, and wildlife.
In the event of a natural disaster, such as a typhoon in Asia, internet connectivity can be rapidly restored through this balloon system so loved ones can get in touch with friends and families to let them know that they’re okay. Loon could also help with rescue missions.
100% renewable energy
Loon balloons work entirely from green energy technology. Not only does the wind carry them along but the electronics are solar powered.
The electronics of each balloon are connected to solar panels. The solar panels are mounted at a steep angle so that it effectively captures sunlight on short winter days at higher latitudes.
Source: Wikimedia / Labelled for Reuse
Producing approximately 100 Watts of power in full sun, the panels provide enough energy to keep Loon’s electronics running, while also charging a battery for use at night.
By moving with the wind and charging in the sun, Project Loon is able to power itself using entirely renewable energy sources.
So how do you actually connect to Loon balloons?
The project’s goal is simple: your phone connects right to the Loon. But for the tech-heads in the audience, let’s take a deeper look at how it works.
The balloons utilise Long Term Evolution (LTE)-antennas for connectivity. Ye what? By partnering with telecommunications companies, Google lets you connect to the balloon network directly from your phone and other LTE-enabled devices. However, users need a special internet antenna attached to their building to connect to the network.
The signal travels through the balloon network from balloon to balloon. It then transmits to a ground-based station connected to an Internet service provider (ISP), and from there it’s just a hop and a skip onto the global Internet. Each balloon’s wireless signal can cover a ground area of 40 kilometres in diameter.
This unique delivery system offers the ability to spread internet connectivity further than ever before. The go-to forms of connectivity just aren’t up to the task of such broad reach. As certain areas can’t reach an access point, Google is bringing the access point to them instead.
Don’t we have satellites? Why bother with balloons?
The standard methods of connecting to the net are wired connections, mobile networks, and satellites. You’ve probably used all three at some point. If we have those, why do we need fancy balloons?
Fibre-optic cables are the go-to for most of us and the internet network providers we use. The cables scurry across the land and manoeuvre through oceans. They cover all continents except for Antarctica and some small island nations.
The limiting factor for this method is the extremely large quantity of cable needed and the fact that it must eventually directly connect to your device—like in your house with your router.
Mobile connections work a little differently, and rely on a system of cell phone towers. These towers offer an impressive reach without the thousands of miles of cable. Developing countries, particularly Africa, use mobile connections as their main method of connectivity. However, the network doesn’t cover chunks of the earth so many places are still unconnected.
This then brings us to satellites. To the unfamiliar, satellites would seem to be the ultimate form of wireless connectivity. Floating above the planet, no obstructions and no wires to trip over, they sound perfect. Satellites can cover a large surface area, but they come with a sting...
Unfortunately, satellites are the slowest form of internet connection and are seriously expensive.
You know when you’re travelling and your mobile data costs a huge amount of money? Satellites are to blame. It gets very expensive very fast, and that’s just not an option for developing countries. Project Loon is intended to bridge that gap. Google’s aim is to provide long term, reliable internet access at a minimal price.
And speaking of price…
Is this really a viable business or is Google blowing hot air?
The quick answer: it’s viable. So, so viable.
Google sees big profit in Project Loon. Google already control 88% of the worldwide search engine market. But, if you remember our earlier figure that 60% of the world is still unconnected to the internet, that’s a lot of potential growth. If 250 million people or about five percent of the unconnected people were to pay just £5 per month, Google could bring in upwards of £10 billion a year.
Revenue projections that impressive make it look like a sure-fire win for Google—and those are only estimates. The reality is that Loon could make Google some serious cash.
So what’s in store for the future?
Well, the project had humble and adventurous beginnings. A pilot test all the way back in June 2013 saw thirty balloons launched from New Zealand’s South Island. These balloons beamed Internet to a small group of pilot testers.
Since this initial pilot test, Project Loon has expanded to include a greater number of people over a wider area.
Expect Project Loon to continue to expand, with the goal of establishing a ring of uninterrupted connectivity high up in the skies of the Southern Hemisphere. Pilot testers in these latitudes will hopefully be able to receive continuous service via balloon-powered Internet. Maybe someday you’ll be reading articles like this from a device connected to a Loon balloon.
While Loon looks and sounds a bit like alien technology, it will likely become a very real part of our future.
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