Expanding Internet Access with Drones and Balloons

Carl Weinschenk

Google either showed a complete sense of irony or none at all by naming its giant balloon initiative Project Loon. In any case, it is making progress.

The idea is to use a fleet of balloons hovering about 60,000 feet above the earth to provide Internet coverage to the vast unserved areas of the globe. Computerworld reports that a milestone was recently achieved: Google is keeping balloons suspended in the stratosphere for more than three months.

That’s important because many balloons will be involved and longevity will be necessary to make the project feasible. A key enabler is Google’s use of Elgin Air Force Base’s McKinley Climatic Laboratory. The facility is huge and can be cooled to -76 degrees Fahrenheit and allow engineers to design and test balloons in the conditions they face when aloft. Progress is also being made in design and launch technologies and procedures.

Google is not the only company trying to provide service to the world – and reap the benefits of doing so. Vator reports that Facebook is ready to test a drone approach. Details about Project Aquila, which clearly doesn’t use hobbyists’ drones, were previously released:

Facebook had already revealed some details about Aquila, including that it has the wingspan of a 737 but weighs hundreds of times less, thanks to its unique design and carbon-fiber frame. Also, when deployed, it will be able to circle a remote region for up to 90 days, beaming connectivity down to people from an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet.

The plan is for cities with Internet access to beam up signals via laser to an Aquila craft. That craft will send the signal to Aquila drones in position to serve areas that don’t have access.

The atmosphere soon may look like a highway in Los Angeles. CNN provides a cheat sheet of what Google, Facebook and two other groups are attempting with Internet access.

OneWeb is a British company that, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) veteran Helen Domenici, plans to launch 600 to 700 satellites by 2019. Airbus, Virgin Galactic and others have shown support. SpaceX, whose founder and CEO is Tesla’s Elon Musk, plans to put 4,000 satellites in orbit within five years.

Domenici, writing at The Leader and Times, points to regulatory issues. And, of course, the technical challenges are daunting. Despite the problems and obstacles, Domenici, who managed and directed the FCC’s International Bureau, lauded all the groups’ goals:

These new satellite constellations hold the promise to welcome billions of new users into the global digital community. Livestock farmers in remote Himalayan villages and laborers on Indonesian oil rigs will soon have access to the Internet’s vast resources. Here in the United States, consumers seeking broadband will finally have an alternative to the major telephone and cable high-speed networks.

It won’t be easy. These are, however, multiple entrants comprised of very smart and successful people using modern technologies in innovative ways. That suggests that success is a good bet.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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