Google's Balloon-Powered Internet Ready for Carrier Testing

Google is set to begin testing its Project Loon initiative to deliver Internet connectivity via high-altitude balloons later this year with telcos in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Google Project Loon

Google's Project Loon initiative to deliver Internet connectivity to poorly connected areas via a global network of high-altitude balloons could be headed for carrier testing later this year.

In a talk at the TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, this week, the head of Google parent Alphabet's X group reported that the company is in talks with carriers around the world about using the network to deliver Internet services to people in remote areas.

"Today our balloons are doing pretty much everything we'd need a complete system to do," Astro Teller, the head of the X group, which houses Alphabet's experimental projects, said. "We're now in commercial discussions with telcos around the world, and we'll be flying over places like Indonesia for real service testing this year."

Eventually, the vision is to use the balloon-powered network to deliver low-cost Internet connectivity to some 4 billion people around the world who don't have access to it presently, he said.

Teller characterized Project Loon as one of the "craziest sounding" among Google's collection of moonshot projects, some of which he admitted have failed. The goal with Project Loon is to beam a relatively high-powered Internet connection to poorly served remote and rural areas around the world from a network of balloons flying in the stratosphere. In trying to enable such a capability, Google has had to confront and overcome several challenges, some of which appeared insurmountable initially, Teller said.

For example, to deliver reliable connectivity, Google had to find a way to ensure that it has enough balloons in place so when one floats out of range over a particular area, another balloon is in place to take over.

"One big thing that was likely to kill Loon was how well we could guide the balloons through the sky," Teller said. Google is doing that today using smart algorithms and wind data collected from around the world and by constantly changing the weight of the balloons in such a way as to take advantage of wind speeds and directions at high altitudes.

Google similarly had to find ways to have the balloons speak with each other and also directly with handsets instead of having the signal routed through an intermediary receiver. Other challenges included finding a way to keep balloons the size of a house afloat for over 100 days while keeping the cost of building them at less than 5 percent of the cost of making conventional long-life balloons, Teller said.

Currently, Google's Project Loon balloons can be navigated to within 500 meters of where they need to be from 12,400 miles away and are capable of delivering 15M-bps connectivity. "We still need to lower balloon costs, but last year a balloon made inexpensively went around the world 19 times over 187 days, so we're going to keep going."

Google has had to experiment with a variety of shapes and sizes for its balloons and bust many of them before getting to a point where it is now ready to begin testing with commercial carriers, Teller noted.

Besides Indonesia, one other country where Google looks all set to begin carrier testing is Sri Lanka. The company recently entered into an agreement with the Sri Lankan government under which it has agreed to give up 25 percent of its stake in the local unit of Project Loon in exchange for dedicated spectrum in Sri Lanka. The country's domestic telecom operators will be given an opportunity to acquire up to 10 percent of the joint venture between the Sri Lankan government and Google, Developing Telecoms reported earlier this month.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.