Loon is ready to fly on its own. In a blog post, the head of Alphabet’s X division, Astro Teller, says that the high altitude balloon-based broadband company, and a drone based sister project, Wing, are leaving the incubator…
Today, unlike when they started as X projects, Loon and Wing seem a long way from crazy — and thanks to their years of hard work and relentless testing in the real world, they’re now graduating from X to become two new independent businesses within Alphabet: Loon and Wing.
As Other Bets, they’ll continue the missions they started here at X. Loon will work with mobile network operators globally to bring internet access to unconnected and under-connected people around the world. Wing is building a drone delivery system to improve the speed, cost, and environmental impact of transporting goods, and an unmanned-traffic management platform to safely route drones through our skies.
Loon’s business model remains focused on providing back haul capacity to mobile carriers in rural area, and regions that remote beyond rural. It finished a proof of concept run in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, and by all accounts managed to make things better. It wasn’t a cosmic solution to Puerto Rico’s connectivity problems, but it did fill the sort of gaps that its business plan is targeting, and demonstrated that it’s a useful tool in disaster recovery operations, according to an article in Ars Technica by Nathan Mattise…
“We usually think about [Project Loon] in places with no existent network, but when a network goes out, people who were served become underserved,” says Sal Candido, a director and principal engineer at X…“In the future, being prepared for these kind of things is something we hadn’t really thought of, but it could be done in advance as a contingency.”
The big question that’s still to be answered is whether the willingness of mobile operators to pay matches the cost of Loon’s bandwidth. That’s what will determine if it’s a sustainable business, rather than ad hoc networking tool.
Project Loon demonstrated a real-world usage case earlier this year, when the worst flooding in decades hit Peru. The stratospheric balloon-based broadband system under development by Alphabet, Inc. – Google’s parent company – was deployed to backfill mobile networks that were damaged or overwhelmed by the disaster.
That’s according to Anne Bray, Project Loon’s business development director. She was speaking at the inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in San Francisco last week.
She said that Project Loon began working with Telefonica in Peru a year ago. It was a testing ground for, among other things, balloon flight operations, including a long duration flight that began at a base in Puerto Rico and then remained on station over Peru for 14 weeks. When the floods hit, the program accelerated, launching balloons and scaling up to reach tens of thousands of people in a short amount of time. It was a new experience. Up until then, Project Loon’s deployments were still largely research projects; all of a sudden it was an emergency responder.
Project Loon is a wholesale play. It partners with terrestrial mobile companies in rural areas, and provides bandwidth to areas that they can’t reach, or where existing infrastructure can’t handle the load.
Using a solar-powered transciever – basically, a small cell site – attached to a balloon that floats at an altitude of about 20 kilometers, one Loon access point can cover about 5,000 square kilometers. Bray said they’re aiming for gigabit-class throughput on each balloon. Project Loon’s website specs the service as delivered to a user on the ground at 10 Mbps.
Project Loon is closer to being a commercially useful platform for broadband connectivity in remote areas. That’s what Wael Fakharany, Google’s business lead in South Africa told a trade show audience in Cape Town. According to Mobile World Live, Fakharany said that the technology needed to use semi-randomly floating balloons to relay Internet traffic is nearly ready for prime time…
“For the last two years we have almost perfected the technology, it’s time for us now to scale in this part of the world,” he said in a session discussing rural broadband coverage.
When quizzed about the attitude of operators to the project, Fakharany said that “the response has been very positive, because we work very closely with operators and take on operators as our strategic partners”.
“The operators control the distribution, marketing, OSS, BSS, CRM – the customer relationship is with the telcos. We are just the infrastructure provider,” he said. “There is a viable commercial business model and is based on skin-in-the-game, sharing costs and revenue with operators for completely untouched potential.”
Tests have already been run with several mobile operators, including Vodafone in New Zealand. The general idea seems to be to use the balloon bandwidth to fill holes in the terrestrial mobile coverage of existing networks, rather than become a separate, competing system operator.
From all appearances, most of the technology is pretty ordinary stuff. By themselves, balloons and transponders are nothing new. There are integration and manufacturing challenges, but of the sort that competent professionals deal with as a matter of course.
The mechanics of tracking and controlling balloons – to the extent control is possible – is more complicated but still doable by mere mortals. The real problem that Google has to solve is building the hellishly complex mathematical models that will allow it to maximise the limited control it’ll have over the balloons in the rapid and random air currents of the stratosphere. Whether it can exercise sufficient control to provide a stable telecommunications platform is a question Google still needs to answer.
Project Loon isn’t so loony, according to the latest Google video about the project. In it, Mike Cassidy, the Project Loon team lead, said that they’ve figured out how to scale up from single test launches in New Zealand and California to dozens of launches a day, supported by a manufacturing facility that can turn out the thousands of balloons they need.
Google plans to work with terrestrial mobile broadband companies. The video features an interview with Tony Baird, Vodafone New Zealand’s technology director. He talks about how Project Loon will be integrated into their existing network.
That’s a good clue to what kind of bandwidth and capability Project Loon brings to the table. Vodafone NZ has pretty good LTE coverage in major cities, tourist areas and along main roads. You get deep into farm country or take off into the bush, and service can be spotty. If Project Loon is designed to backfill difficult nooks and crannies and very low population density areas for mobile carriers, it doesn’t need a ton of bandwidth to be useful. It’s one thing to build a system that provides universal service over a wide area, it’s quite another – and much more doable – to plug gaps in a full service, nearly full coverage network.
Google’s end game might be more ambitious, but it seems its immediate aim is to get a usefully limited balloon-based system up and running. That goal seems to be in reach.
A year ago, if anyone had said that Google and Facebook would be fighting each other to acquire drone manufacturers and technology, you might have rightly called that person crazy. Loony, even. But that’s what’s going on now.
Titan’s drone technology will be used by Google both for imaging purposes and to bolster Project Loon, which is aimed at bringing Internet connectivity to parts of the world that can’t be economically reached by conventional means. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, via Internet.org and the new Facebook Connectivity Lab, wants to use drones for the same purpose.
Project Loon is also making progress. The idea is to deliver Internet service by using a globe-spanning web of balloons steered along stratospheric wind streams solely by changing their altitude. One test balloon recently logged one lap of the Earth in 22 days.
These initiatives are research and development projects right now, and are a long way from actually providing service to consumers on the ground. But the out-of-the-box knowledge Google and Facebook gain from these experiments could have – will have – unpredictable consequences for telecoms technology. It doesn’t matter how weird or unusual the original problem was, novel solutions can be put to very conventional uses. Which can be very disruptive for incumbent telecoms companies. Which might be the whole point.