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Broadband Aloft Can Connect 1 Billion

LONDON -- Broadband World Forum -- For 1 billion of the 2.5 billion people on the planet who don't have access to the Internet, balloons may be the answer to their prayers. Not just any old balloon -- big balloons, 20km high in the sky, well above aircraft, operated by Alphabet's X innovation lab, and kitted out with fiber optics, tunable spectrum gear and lasers.

During the morning keynotes in London today, Mauro de Filho, strategy director at Alphabet Inc. X's Project Loon, gave an overview of the project and its mission to provide connectivity to rural areas previously out of reach.

Filho said each balloon can provide connectivity to 4,000 square kilometers, or two times the area of an average tower. The balloons fly very high -- way above aircraft and weather but low enough that typical, off the shelf, 4G handsets can connect to the Internet without any specialized infrastructure, said Filho. "You can get massive footprint and serve your users with off the shelf handsets."

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! Nope. It's Broadband!
A Project Loon balloon when Alphabet launched the project in 2014. Source: Alphabet
A Project Loon balloon when Alphabet launched the project in 2014. Source: Alphabet

The project is not without challenges -- one of which is that balloons cannot be steered; they can only be moved up and down. Another is that the project is heavily reliant on computing but it also relies on things like meteorology and ballooning which are a bit outside the realm of typical telecom skill sets.

In fact, Filho described one specific trial that involved launching balloons from Puerto Rico and moving them to Peru for service. After 18 days of flight and 100 days in use in Peru, the trial required 18,000 maneuvers with the balloons. "We learned a lot about ballooning," he said.

Wireless backhaul is provided balloon to balloon using free space optics -- and accuracy is essential but very difficult to achieve. To get an idea of what it would be like, Filho said people should imagine standing on the opposite side of a football field from a friend who's holding a grain of rice and spinning in circles, and then imagine aiming a laser at the grain of rice -- just a bit of a challenge but one that can provide great reward.

"Instead of running fiber on the ground, we can run fiber in the sky if we can point the optics toward another," said Filho. The balloons then pass the traffic onto specific operators on the ground using tunable radio spectrum technology, he said. "One billion people can connect direct with normal handsets. We can revolutionize lives."

— Elizabeth Miller Coyne, Managing Editor, Light Reading

kq4ym 10/30/2016 | 10:33:09 AM
Re: Ballooning costs It would seem the costs to maintain and replace the balloons might be one point against the efficiencies of the proposed systems even though they give a much larger footprint than a cell tower. I wonder if there's any downsde in the balloons blocking or interfering with signals from space craft or satellites above them
mendyk 10/20/2016 | 9:55:53 AM
Ballooning costs Liz -- As part of this epic (as in decades of development) experiment, is anyone toting up the infrastructure costs to keep these things functioning properly?
KBode 10/19/2016 | 1:48:02 PM
Loon Really glad that Loon is making some traction. I remember reading some criticism early on from "balloon experts" that repeatedly claimed what Google is now doing (months aloft at a time) simply wasn't possible. Very interested in seeing where these efforts lead to. 
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