The announcement by Facebook that it is ready to test it’s drone, code named Aquila, that will be used to provide cheap Internet to the world’s poor, generated a buzz that also brought up the issue of Google’s own initiative to provide cheap Internet to the world’s poor. Google’s project actually predates Facebook’s by a couple of years.
In Google’s case the idea is to use balloons, thousand of balloons actually, to provide cheap Internet connectivity to people all over the world. Hence the name Google balloons, but officially known as the ‘Loon Project.’ Loon because at the time the idea was mooted, Google’s executives thought the idea of providing Internet to over 5 billion using balloons people was a crazy notion.
The development of this crazy idea all started in 2011 in Google’s Google X complex, a super secret laboratory located just a few kilometers from Google’s headquarters (known as Googleplex). Google X is actually not a super secret facility, but most of the work done their are closely guarded secrets. The facility is completely immersed in the development of future technologies. After tinkering with the Loon project and secretly testing it, the project was finally officially announced in June 2013, with the public testing of 30 balloons in New Zealand.
So how will this work? Basically, the aim is to have thousands of balloons flying in the stratosphere. That is about 18 – 25km about the earth’s surface out of reach of any aeroplanes. Another advantage of this altitude is that at this height, wind speed is very low which invariably means that turbulence is also low. This is necessary to avoid damage to the balloons. See full description here.
To provide data and Internet connectivity, Google will partner with telecommunications companies to share cellular data spectrum so that people will be able to access the data directly from an LTE enabled device and mobile phones. The balloons, phones, LTE devices and telecoms facilities on the ground form a close data loop back to the global Internet using high speed links. Of course Google do things at the front end. That is why LTE technology is being used here.
The LTE, Long Term Evolution, is the technology considered by techies to take over from UMTS 3G technology which is the prevalent technology right now especially in third world countries. To be clear, LTE is not a replacement for UMTS in the way UMTS was introduced to replace GSM, but rather the LTE is an update on UMTS. This would enable the balloons to provide faster data speed.
The balloons would be positioned at strategic positions at all times. By moving with the slight wind in the stratosphere, each balloon is programmed to maintain a specific position relative to other balloons so that a constant pattern is maintained to form one large communication network. Each balloon has a coverage of 40 km and can stay up in the stratosphere for up to 100 days at a time.
This might sound so hi-tech and so far off in the future. But the whole package is already with us now. Or to be specific, it is already with the lucky people of Sri Lanka, because Google and the Government of Sri Lanka announced on the 28th of July, that an agreement had being signed to launch the balloons on a mass scale throughout the country. So in a matter of months, a third world country, Sri Lanka, will be the first country to get full Internet coverage using LTE technology.
So what started as a crazy idea, will soon see people buying telescopes not to look at the stars, but to scan the stratosphere searching for balloons hovering over their vicinity.