Loon Launch

Google’s Big Float

Loon_lThe concept of floating base stations in the sky isn’t new. Back in the 1990s, for example, blimp-based mobile networks were one of the more innovative proposals from 3G spectrum work groups for rolling out next-generation services. But now Alphabet’s Google X division is launching Internet-sharing balloons over Indonesia.

The region has a population of a quarter of a billion people spread across an archipelago of thousands of islands. Alphabet estimates that 100 million Indonesians currently have no possibility of reaching the Internet given current telecommunication networks. Indonesia’s topography of dense jungles and rugged mountains is hostile to traditional telecom infrastructure, making the country an ostensible choice for Project Loon as this can reach villages on even the most remote Indonesian islands.

Project Loon isn’t about providing free Internet access to the disconnected. Rather, Google X will be working with the top-three local operators — Indosat, Telkomsel and XL Axiata — to use the Loon infrastructure to supplement their existing networks.

The balloons are elevated to an altitude of about 20 kilometres, and are continuously and automatically adjusted by monitoring software to find an optimal position given wind currents. Each unmanned balloon has a transmitter, control computer, GPS sensor and solar panels on board, and a lifespan of about 100 days. Each can provide coverage to an area of about 5,000 square kilometres — three times the size of Greater London.

But the Loon network only solves half the connectivity equation. The unique floating infrastructure also requires a subscription arrangement and the availability of low-cost LTE smartphones. Google X states that Android One LTE devices — based on the company’s standard hardware and software reference design — should go some way to addressing handset availability.

Loon services will go live in Indonesia during 2016. It’s one potential method of bringing connectivity to the billions who remain outside of the digital world, and will open up new opportunities. Alphabet isn’t alone in exploring distinctive connectivity solutions. Facebook, for example, is experimenting with Internet drones. This is about more than just goodwill, as connecting the next billion means unlocking the next billion customers. It will take unconventional techniques to spread access further, but companies like Alphabet have the means to float new ideas.

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