Progress Report On Google’s Experiment With Internet Balloons In Africa

Written by Dana Sanchez

Google said it should have a “semi-permanent” ring of Internet balloons floating across the southern hemisphere in the next year or so, the WallStreetJournal reported in November.

The project is part of an ambitious effort known as Project Loon to beam Internet access to unconnected people from high-altitude, wind-borne balloons circling Earth.

Each balloon is made from sheets of polyethylene plastic and measures 15 meters by 12 meters when fully inflated.

When Google first announced the project two years ago, people were incredulous, said Luke McKend, head of Google South Africa, in an interview on the sidelines of last week’s World Economic Forum for Africa in Cape Town with BizNews.

So how’s it going?

“We’ve tried and tested it in a few different inhospitable regions, and if you think about the African continent, there are many places that are fairly far away from urban conglomerations,” McKend told BizNews.

Here’s how loon balloons work, according to Google. They float about 20 kilometers (12.42 miles) in the stratosphere — about two-to-three times the height jet liners fly — where they’re carried by the wind and controlled electronically. Each balloon distributes an Internet connection through a Wi-Fi signal to a radius of about 40 kilometers on Earth below. Balloons relay wireless traffic from cell phones and other devices back to the global Internet using high-speed links. Ideally there are enough balloons to have a slight overlap so there are no gaps in coverage, Google, says.

Google partners with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum, enabling people to connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices.

Most Internet connectivity at the moment is focused on laying fiber and deep, infrastructure-type developments, McKend told BizNews. “That is often very expensive to deliver and probably not appropriate in very rural or far-flung areas. Loon offers an opportunity to use technology to reach people where laying a cable is just not going to happen.”

When a balloon is “ready to be taken out of service,” gas is released to bring the balloon down to Earth in a controlled descent, Google says. If a balloon falls too fast, a parachute is deployed.

A farmer in the Karoo in November found a crashed project Loon balloon that had electronic components and the words “Made in the USA” and “Google X” on it. In an email to the farmer, an engineer from Google in California confirmed that it looked like a Google balloon and said a local representative would come by to collect it, WallStreetJournal reports.

A balloon crashed in Nevada in June, damaging a utility pole.

BizNews asked McKend if access to the Google Internet balloons is free.

Here’s how he replied: “Well, the way we want to operate, at the moment, is that Google is not particularly interested in owning the end customer. I think the real intent for us is to provide a technology that could be accessible to existing mobile operators, who have existing systems that enable them to reach millions and millions of customers. We make the technology available in ways that it wouldn’t be viable for them to do, and potentially, they lease it off us, but I think the commercial considerations at this stage are probably still under discussion.

“Google works really well when we partner with others. I think a number of the initiatives that we have, where we go it alone, aren’t always our most successful, so I think we’re very keen to make sure that we have the right partners, in each of the different locations for this sort of project.”

With such a new way of distributing the Internet, it takes a long time to go from incredulity to credulity, McKend told Biznews. “You need to make sure that your technology is absolutely rock solid, in order to do that…I think a two year period to incubate this sort of technology, is not so long. There is still some time to come…The internet is here to stay. Google is an enormous part of that, and we’d like to make sure that we continue to be relevant to business and users.”

In a Projct Loon video, Mike Cassidy, Project Loon leader, said the process of making the balloons more durable was like doing detective work, trying to figure out what was causing leaks. “At first, they’d come down over the course of a few hours or a few days…now they’re lasting over 100 days,” Cassidy said.

Google is getting close to the point where it can roll out thousands of balloons. “At first we could roll out a balloon a day,” Cassidy said. “Now we can roll out dozens a day with our own automated crane system.”

A mission control system allows Google to track every balloon.

“The technology’s working,” Cassidy said.