Google's broadband balloons are almost perfected exec says

24 October 2015 by Steve Blum

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.