Project Loon: Internet network in the sky
July 1, 2013
by Mark Ollig

In this country, nearly everyone is able to access the Internet.

So, it came as a surprise when I learned approximately two-thirds of our planet’s population has no Internet accessibility.

Providing Internet to these underserved areas means building expensive fiber-optic cabling systems, launching earth-orbiting satellites, or using (gasp) slow, dial-up connections.

What can be done?

It’s been determined sending up balloons with Wi-Fi transmitters/receivers attached to them would work.

So, who came up with an idea like this?

Why, it was our good friends at Google.

Google’s recently announced Project Loon consists of a “network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas.”

These are not ordinary party balloons being lofted into the sky.

They are high-altitude balloons, which will be navigated via the movements of the winds inside the Earth’s stratosphere.

The balloons are large; roughly 45 feet in diameter.

Using specialized, high-bandwidth, filtered radio antennas enclosed in a small box hanging underneath these balloons eliminates any chance of radio interference from other transmission sources.

Attached batteries will store solar power for nighttime operation.

Each balloon provides Wi-Fi ground coverage of approximately 25 miles in diameter.

They will be controlled from the ground at Loon Mission Control.

The balloons will maneuver to their desired locations using wind and speed information obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Won’t these balloons create a hazard for planes and birds?

One might think so, however, remember these are high-altitude balloons, and they will be floating above the earth anywhere from 12 to 27 miles; placing them inside the stratosphere, safely above commercial aircraft and birds.

Aircraft, birds, and storms are in the space below 6.5 miles above the earth.

In the stratosphere, there are layers of wind moving west to east; however, some wind streams move in opposite directions. A balloon can be controlled from the ground to enter a certain layer of wind direction, thus “steering” the balloon as it sails through the wind.

Using this method, ground controllers can send a balloon to take the place of another which has moved on. A number of balloons could be clustered when necessary, in order to provide better Internet coverage.

So, how do these balloons provide Internet service to the folks on the ground?

A building will have a specialized Internet antenna attached on the outside which communicates with one of the Wi-Fi balloons.

Each balloon is also in communication with the other balloons. One of the balloons is designated to make the connection to an Internet ground station, which has a connection to the local Internet Service Provider.

You can see a picture of this artsy-looking Wi-Fi antenna with the red, round ball attached to it, at: http://tinyurl.com/loonwifi.

Project Loon noted their launch crews are in contact with air traffic control before any balloons are sent up or returned.

Google has already safely placed many Wi-Fi balloons into the stratosphere.

After about 100 days, a balloon will return to Earth in a controlled landing. Project Loon controllers determine exactly where it will come down. The balloon is then recycled, and its parts re-used.

Recently, 30 balloons were launched from New Zealand’s South Island.

This experimental balloon network transmitted Internet signals to a group of 50 Wi-Fi computer beta-testers in the Canterbury area.

One small farm located in this test area had extremely slow Internet service; the farmer there said he would sometimes need to wait 10 minutes for a Web page to download on to his computer’s screen.

This farm has many sheep. The farmer said the first thing he needs to check in the morning is the weather; “to see whether my sheep are going to dry out.”

Team members of Project Loon installed the special Wi-Fi receiver on his farmhouse.

“It’s been really exciting,” the farmer said.

With his computer connected to Project Loon’s Internet network, the farmer smiled as the first Web page he clicked on quickly downloaded to his computer.

“Bingo!” he exclaimed. “Yay!” shouted one of the members of Project Loon, who was observing.

“That was fast, too!” beamed the farmer, in reference to the downloading speed of the Internet page.

The speed of the Internet over Project Loon’s network “will be similar to today’s 3G networks or faster,” according to Google’s Project Loon blog.

I imagine some of you are asking why Google calls it Project Loon.

Well, yours truly is not completely sure why.

Seeing “Loon” I, of course, immediately thought of Minnesota’s state bird, the common loon.

I suppose the answer might have been revealed on one website stating the idea of using balloons to provide Internet seemed a bit bizarre, or loony.

Project Loon said they “hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote, and underserved areas and, for helping with communications after natural disasters.”

“We’re using the sunlight, we’re using the wind, we’re using all of these things to build this network in the sky,” said Rich DeVaul, chief technical architect of Project Loon.

A Google YouTube video about Project Loon can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/loonproject.

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