High Altitude Internet Balloons – What Are They and Could They Be Implemented in Australia?

August 8th, 2016 - Get new posts sent straight to your inbox, click here. AussieBB

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It can be difficult to imagine, but as much as 60 per cent or 4.3 billion of the world’s population lives without Internet access. In Australia alone there are four million people who live in households without an Internet connection. While the barrier to access can be the cost for some people, for others – especially those that live in rural regions – it is simply the fact that building expensive cell towers and other infrastructure in low-population, remote areas is an impossible business proposition for telecommunications companies.

Given this, there have been attempts to bring affordable technologies to those that still live without Internet access. One of these efforts involves the use of high altitude Internet balloons, a technology that has been under experimentation for some years, with Google’s Project Loon. Here, we look at what this technology involves and whether it might be used in Australia.

What are High Altitude Internet Balloons?

High Altitude Internet Balloons (HAIBs) are just as the name suggests- they are helium-filled balloons carrying boxes of radio hardware into the air, and are used to beam high speed Wi-Fi down to remote areas. They are barely visible to the naked eye since they are deployed 20 kilometres above ground into the stratosphere, twice as high as commercial planes, which fly in the lower stratosphere.

The inflatable part of the balloon, called the balloon envelope, is made from sheets of polyethylene plastic and is around 15 by 12 metres in size when inflated. The balloon carries a box of radio equipment, as well as solar panels that can generate enough power for one day’s operation from just four hours of light.

The box of equipment includes a radio transmitter for beaming Internet signals, lithium ion batteries to store solar power, antennas for broadcasting 4G, a GPS chip, a small microprocessor used to control flight, and a heater for the electronics, which need to operate in an environment that is below 50 degrees Celsius.

The balloons provide Internet access for an area around 80 kilometres in diameter and offers wireless LTE (4G) technology. These balloons work with telecommunications companies and mobile networks on the ground to bound signals back and forth between the balloons, and the balloons can also send signals to other balloons for further coverage.

How HAIBs are deployed and coordinated in the air

The hardware and balloon components of HAIBs are the less challenging aspect of making the technology work. A bigger challenge is ensuring that the balloons – which have no propulsion systems – are deployed and piloted accurately across thousands of kilometres in the stratosphere, where high wind speeds of more than 300 kilometres are the norm.

Project Loon has overcome this challenge by using algorithms to direct balloons in the face of changing wind currents, to ensure that there is usually always a balloon within a reasonable distance (40 kilometres) for a reliable service. Effectively, the balloons move and shift positions by simply changing their altitude in reaction to changing wind patterns, to ensure the network is always online for users.

Lifespan and end of service

While initial experiments had the balloons lasting just eight days in the air, Project Loon’s balloons now last on average over 100 days in the air, with some lasting as long as 130 days. Eventually, the balloons may last for 180 days or longer.

At the end of it’s service cycle, the balloon is brought down in a controlled descent by having gas released from the envelope. In some cases, the balloon can drop too quickly and so an attached parachute is deployed to slow and control the descent. Although their lifespan is limited, components of the balloons can be recycled.

Business model

Google’s goal is to continue working with telcos around the world by leasing balloons to wireless carriers and other providers, who can then link the balloons to their existing networks. This eliminates the need for Google to buy licences, while saving telecommunications providers from having to spend billions on ground-based infrastructure in rural areas where they would be servicing very low populations.

By comparison to ground-based infrastructure, Project Loon and HAIB technologies offer a much more cost-effective model. According to Google, eventually it should be possible to run each balloon for just hundreds of dollars a day, with each balloon servicing thousands of connections at a time. The technology is ahead of possible alternatives such as drone-based connections, and will continue to be less expensive than drone-based or satellite-based business models.

Google’s Project Loon in Australia

Project Loon has been in development since 2011 and is the front runner of the high altitude Internet balloons space. It is e xpected to eventually deliver high speed Internet services to billions of people around the world. Trials have already begun or been announced in locations such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, New Zealand , and Australia.

In Sri Lanka, Google has partnered with the government to trial the technology, and it’s Indonesian trial will be in collaboration with three of the country’s major mobile operators. While Australians in cities tend to find it easier to have access to Internet services, those that live in remote regions do not, and this is the market segment that Project Loon is targeting.

Beyond Australia, Project Loon aims to eventually have a worldwide fleet of balloons or ring of balloons encircling the globe, gliding on the westerly stratospheric winds.

What to do until then

Until projects with HAIBs become a reality, Australians in rural areas should be checking regularly to see if the NBN has become available in their area. To find out if the NBN is available in your area, visit our site today or contact us on 1300 880 905 to speak with our broadband experts.