The Internet is supposed to be the big leveller of our times, taking information and knowledge to the people who need it the most. But only a third of the world’s population is online — the three major obstacles to everyone getting the Internet being technology (that is good enough), affordability (that makes services and devices cheaper, even free), and connectivity (that can take the Internet everywhere that people are).
The two major Internet companies, Google and Facebook, are working on removing these obstacles. Their most ambitious project is to try to beam the Internet down from the skies, making it ubiquitous around the globe.
Watch how Google’s Project Loon works (App users click here)
Google has already rolled out Google Fibre, a fibre-to-the-premises service, which includes a free Internet option. But what could really be the gamechanger is Project Loon, or affordable balloon-powered Internet.
Google calls it a “network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters”. Project Loon balloons will travel in the stratosphere, approximately 20 km above the Earth’s surface, latching on to layers of wind as directed by software algorithms to determine where they need to go. In the end, they will form one large communications network.
The inflatable envelopes are made from sheets of polyethylene plastic, 15 metres wide and 12 metres tall when fully inflated. They are designed to stay up for at least 100 days in one go.
The electronics are powered by an array of solar panels mounted at a steep angle to effectively capture sunlight on short winter days at higher latitudes. The panels can produce about 100 Watts of power in full sun, enough to keep the electronics running, along with charging a battery for use at night.
The small box under the balloon will contain circuit boards that control the system, radio antennas to communicate with other balloons and with Internet antennas on the ground, and lithium ion batteries to store solar power so the balloons can operate throughout the night.
Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter using LTE. Project Loon partners with telecom companies to share cellular spectrum.
In June 2013, Project Loon was tested in New Zealand. Google says the results of this pilot test and several other tests elsewhere in the world, “are being used to improve the technology in preparation for the next stages of the project”.
Free Internet projects are part of its Internet.org initiative. It has begun to set up terrestrial Express Wi-Fi services in hundreds of locations across India; announced plans to launch a satellite with France’s Eutelsat Communications to take the Internet to large parts of sub-Saharan Africa in 2016. The big plan, however, is Aquila.
Yael Macguire of Facebook’s connectivity lab calls it a “crazy idea”. But the prototype is ready — a solar-powered aircraft with a wingspan bigger than a Boeing 737, that can stay up for months on end. Cruising altitude: 60,000 ft (> 18 km), much higher than commercial aircraft. Footprint: 100 km diameter.
“We want the airplanes to be where the people are… It is really important that they can station keep, or stay in a particular region and connect a particular people. They will move, but around a small zone. When the plane moves the RF (radio frequency) system will adjust so that it continues to have the same terrestrial footprint,” Macguire told The Indian Express.
While these aircraft try and create a grid of connectivity, there will also be dark spots without connectivity in areas with no substantial population. Those areas could be fed by satellite. The concept is to have multiple grid layers — like the aircraft-powered grid overlapping with the Express Wi-Fi grid on the ground. “We want to make sure that various Express W-Fi networks are interconnected. The UAVs, meanwhile, will provide the equivalent of the microwave backhaul. We think of these of building blocks to ensure it is a robust network,” Macguire said.
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Most people who need connectivity are already near cities with optical networks. “So one of the ideas we are exploring is to use a laser system to interconnect these planes,” Macguire said, adding that lasers are cheaper as they don’t come under the regulatory framework and have lots of bandwidth. However, there are challenges. “For instance, we have to be able to hit what is the size of a rupee from 17.7 km away to be able to interlink the UAVs,” Macguire said. In labs, the team has been able to achieve 10x of existing state of the art data speeds and capacities.
Indonesia is likely to be the first country covered by Loon, though no launch date is known but Google has received nod from Indian government to beam Internet from its floating balloons. Facebook’s Aquila is 3 years away from taking flight.
Both Facebook and Google have said they don’t want to become service providers. But US-based academic Vivek Wadhwa says when free Wi-Fi (or affordable Internet) starts covering the globe in 3-4 years, traditional telecom service providers are bound to feel threatened. “They will start telling governments that they will go bankrupt. If you have Wi-Fi everywhere no one is going to use their services,” Wadhwa said. Wadhwa sees regulatory battles ahead. “After all, this could wipe out the entire telecom industry.”