What is a smartphone without an internet connection? Just a device that enables you to make and receive calls and messages along with certain other basic features. No doubt our expensive smartphones are not of much use these days without a stable internet connection. Internet access is no longer a luxury but a basic amenity without which life is unimaginable for the current generation.
The Coronavirus pandemic has led to a substantial rise in internet demand. Strict lockdown orders across various countries meant people had to avoid venturing out of the safety of their homes unless absolutely necessary. Every domain is witnessing a digital revolution. Demand for high-speed internet has shot up as everything from attending Zoom meetings to ordering groceries requires an internet connection.
But the pandemic has highlighted huge inequalities in internet access. Many regions across the world still don’t have access to this basic necessity due to reasons like lack of infrastructure, treacherous terrain, low-income levels, etc. Surely the future is expected to be better as many brilliant minds are at work to reduce inequities in this area.
Alphabet’s subsidiary- Loon which is based in California has created something which will blow our minds. The name of the company sounds odd, right? This name was decided because of the absurdity of the idea initially. The project began as a research and development project under Google X but later became a separate company in July 2018. It has created a network of balloons which can provide internet connectivity to the areas not served and boost connectivity in the others by partnering with network providers. The same technology can provide instant network relief in areas affected by natural disasters where the communications systems have been wiped out.
Loon isn’t a telecom company. Rather, it partners with local telecom companies and expands their network to reach out to otherwise left-out areas. These balloons float about 12 miles above the ground, in the Stratosphere which is the second layer of the atmosphere, just above the Troposphere. This is far above the range where airplanes and birds fly. A high-speed signal is transmitted by the telecom partner from the ground to the nearest balloon. This signal is further transmitted across the balloon network and then sent back to users on the ground. A Cell Tower’s range is limited by the height of its antennas. Since these balloons are high above the ground, they provide wider coverage. As per Loon, they can cover an area 200 times the reach of a cell tower. The speed of the internet is similar to that of a 4G network.
Started in 2011, the decade-long project has finally been launched in Kenya in partnership with Telkom Kenya, the 3rd largest local telecommunication company having 6% market share. Majority of the population of Kenya lives in rural areas. Hence, this project comes as a blessing for the people in Kenya. As many as 35 balloons are transmitting 4G signals to 31000 sq. miles of Kenya.
The 15m wide tennis-court sized balloons are made of polyethylene which is the most common type of plastic used. Designed to last for over 100 days in harsh conditions, they can encounter temperature swings of 150 Degree Centigrade with temperature reaching as low as -90 degree centigrade. Solar panels power the equipment during the day-time and charge an onboard battery for night-time operation. There is an on-board parachute for controlled descent and landing after the life of the balloon ends. Each balloon is tested in conditions similar to those present in the Stratosphere like high-speed winds and sub-zero temperature. Managing the direction in which the balloons flow requires an understanding of wind patterns in the stratosphere for which predictive models have been designed to create wind charts. Using these charts various algorithms are designed to optimize the path to be taken by the balloon to reach the desired destination. A special machine has been designed to launch the balloons into the atmosphere. It has the ability to send a balloon every 30 seconds.
This technology is a ray of hope for people living in areas with less developed and absolutely no networking infrastructure. Well, a lot more work is required to make it more efficient. Field testing in Kenya recorded an upload speed of 4.74 mbps and a download speed of 18.9 mbps. However, in US averages the average upload speed is 52 mbps and the average download speed is 135 mbps. Hence, the internet speed is relatively slow. Also, the service is currently available from 9 am to 6 pm as it is solar powered. Even though algorithms have been created to ensure balloons move in the right direction as per the winds, there are high chances of disruption in service at this stage. The launch has been criticized on the grounds that Kenya already has many internet users and a reasonably sufficient infrastructure. Hence, the launch should have taken place in a comparatively less developed region. Crashing of balloons is a matter of concern as well. The balloons have been spotted numerous times in California with one such balloon crashing in the front yard of a house there.
The biggest advantage of this technology is its ability to provide service during times of emergency like natural calamities. The Kenyan launch was its first non-emergency commercial service. It has provided emergency services before this launch like the one during Puerto Rico’s hurricane Maria in 2017. It also provided support in Peru within 48 hours of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the country in 2019. This technology is also being claimed as a cheaper option than erecting more towers and laying cables. It aims to supplement the existing network infrastructure. The costs however are not known currently.
The ambitious project seems to have a promising future ahead as internet demand has been scaling up at a faster rate. Loon has started signing more deals already. It has partnered with Vodacom to launch its service in Mozambique, a country in East Africa. It has also signed an agreement to beam internet in remote areas of The Amazon. However, the goal of providing internet access to all still requires a lot more effort as many people still can’t afford smartphones and other gadgets. An inclusive digital revolution is still a distant reality but the project is definitely a major leap.