Google Launches Balloon-Based Internet Access

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Project Loon isn’t just a load of hot air, says Google

Google has launched a fleet of 30 high-altitude, solar-powered balloons capable of delivering Internet access at 3G speeds to specialised antennas on the ground below.

It forms part of a wider strategy, reported last month, of exploring new ways of delivering connectivity to remote or disaster-stricken areas.

The “moonshot” idea, called Project Loon, was developed by the search giant’s secretive Google X laboratory. Last week Google launched 30 balloons which it will use to deliver Internet connectivity to the Canterbury area of New Zealand, and said over time it plans to set up pilots in other countries at the same latitude (the 40th parallel south).

Balloon-based network

“We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below,” Google project lead Mike Cassidy said in a blog post on Saturday.

google-project-loonThe balloons are designed to drift with prevailing winds at a height of about 12.5 miles above sea level, or twice the height that commercial aircraft fly, Google said. They include solar panels that deliver enough power to run their equipment, while storing electricity in batteries for use at night.

The balloons need to be kept close enough together to communicate with each other, forming a large communication network, and for this they are designed to use the prevailing winds to navigate, ascending or descending in order to catch the right current for where they need to go. This navigation is controlled by Google from the ground using “some complex algorithms and lots of computing power”, according to Cassidy.

Connectivity is provided via the freely available 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz ISM bands, with each balloon able to provide connectivity to a ground area of about 40 kilometres in diameter. Currently only specialised fixed antennas can connect to the balloons, but Google said the scheme might eventually extend to mobile technology.

“We imagine someday you’ll be able to use your cell phone with your existing service provider to connect to the balloons and get connectivity where there is none today,” Cassidy wrote.

The company is initially trialling the system with 50 New Zealand testers.

Experimental technology

Google said its wider aim with its access technology is to connect billions more people to the Internet, and toward this end, the company continues to experiment with new access technologies.

For instance, in January Google sought the approval of the US’ Federal Communications Commission for trials of an experimental wireless network using indoor and outdoor base stations to provide access over a two-mile radius.

It has disclosed plans to expand the Google Fibre network, currently running in Kansas City, to locations including Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah, and last year held talks with US satellite TV provider Dish Network on building a wireless broadband network in the United States.

Google has filed patent applications related to airborne access systems in the past, including a 2000 application related to a “high-altitude platform” used as the basis for a “communications system”.

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