Project Loon, Aquila and the quest for faster in­ter­net


MY of­fi­cial start in tech­nol­ogy busi­nesses goes back to De­cem­ber 4, 1989 but I well re­mem­ber my in­ter­est in the tech­no­log­i­cal world be­ing stirred up when our school, St. Johns Col­lege, pur­chased two Ap­ple II com­put­ers in the early eight­ies and I started tin­ker­ing and pro­gram­ming and be­ing en­tirely fas­ci­nated.

With al­most twenty-seven years of­fi­cially in­volved in tech­nol­ogy and well over thirty years of play­ing com­put­ers and elec­tron­ics, I am of­ten asked for my opin­ion on the most sig­nif­i­cant tech­nol­ogy changes I have wit­nessed in that time.

The an­swer is easy. The ubiq­uity of con­nec­tiv­ity. Well, al­most ubiq­uity. In cities and met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas through­out the na­tion, we have a rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion that we can ac­cess the out­side world – via some method – no mat­ter where we are. Un­for­tu­nately, there are Aus­tralian res­i­dents who live out­side these cities that are in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to our econ­omy and stan­dard of liv­ing that strug­gle to find any con­nec­tion but the gen­eral ex­pec­ta­tion is that we can con­nect wher­ever we are.

The prob­lems we ex­pe­ri­ence in re­gional Aus­tralia are mir­rored in other coun­tries around the globe. Eritrea is of­fi­cially the worst con­nected country in the world with 1.1 per cent In­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion but there are 38 coun­tries with less than 10 per cent In­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion in­clud­ing (in or­der) lo­ca­tions such as Ti­mor-leste; So­ma­lia; Ethiopia; Mada­gas­car (the Pen­guins wouldn’t be happy); Tan­za­nia; Mozam­bique; Cam­bo­dia; Rwanda and more. Lo­ca­tions with poor In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity usu­ally two items in com­mon.

Poor in­fra­struc­ture in gen­eral and poor eco­nomic con­di­tions. To throw in an ex­tra in­gre­di­ent, many of the coun­tries to­wards the bot­tom of the list also have chal­leng­ing ter­rain.

I have pre­vi­ously talked about some of the is­sues in­volv­ing satel­lites for In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity. Satel­lites in geo­sta­tion­ary or­bit are at an ap­prox­i­mate dis­tance of 35,786km above the earth and, as such, the la­tency makes the In­ter­net frus­trat­ing to use so many or­gan­i­sa­tions are go­ing away from satel­lite so­lu­tions.

There is also the mi­nor fac­tor of ex­or­bi­tant cost to con­sider. The other so­lu­tion I have pre­vi­ously men­tioned has been satel­lites in Low Earth Or­bit. These satel­lites typ­i­cally sit around 780km to 1,414km above the earth so the la­tency is dra­mat­i­cally re­duced. To give con­sis­tent cov­er­age in one area, you re­quire any­where from 26 to 52 satel­lites so al­though the lag time is re­duced, the ex­or­bi­tant cost goes up an­other notch.

Two lit­tle com­pa­nies that you may have heard of are cur­rently in­volved in at­tempts to bring con­nec­tiv­ity to re­mote and re­gional lo­ca­tions that can be de­liv­ered at rea­son­able speeds at costs that are not strato­spheric. One ad­van­tage of hav­ing a com­pany that is mak­ing bil­lions of dol­lars a year in prof­its is that you can pour some of that money into mak­ing the world a bet­ter place. At least that is what Google and Face­book would have us be­lieve. The cyn­ics may sug­gest that the more peo­ple on the globe that are con­nected to the In­ter­net then the higher the prof­its will be for com­pa­nies like Google and Face­book. Re­gard­less of the mo­ti­va­tion, the tech­nol­ogy is fas­ci­nat­ing.

Project Loon is a re­search and devel­op­ment project de­vel­oped by Google that uses, wait for it, bal­loons. The con­cept is that, un­like the costs, the bal­loons will be strato­spheric. A num­ber of bal­loons will be floated into the strato­sphere at a height of about 18km above the earth. The bal­loons will com­mu­ni­cate with each other and ISPS on the ground to de­liver In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity at 4G-LTE speeds (sim­i­lar to the speeds we achieve on our cur­rent mo­bile phone net­work).

An area in New Zealand was used as an early pi­lot with 50 users con­nect­ing to the sys­tem and Sri Lanka is cur­rently in the process of con­nect­ing with Project Loon on a mass scale. I can only as­sume Sri Lanka was cho­sen due to low In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity (21.9 per cent) com­bined with a small land mass (65,610 square kilo­me­tres – smaller than Tas­ma­nia) and a high pop­u­la­tion den­sity (a pop­u­la­tion of 20.5 mil­lion peo­ple). It also helped that the gov­ern­ment came on board as a joint ven­ture part­ner.

De­spite ten bal­loon ‘crashes’ so far, Project Loon is con­fi­dent that each bal­loon will be able to stay air­borne for over six months at a time.

Not to be out­done, Face­book is work­ing on a slightly dif­fer­ent con­cept. The Face­book Con­nec­tiv­ity Lab is cur­rently test­ing Aquila – a so­lar pow­ered drone that will fly at 18km above the earth. A num­ber of drones will be used to de­liver a sim­i­lar so­lu­tion to Project Loon’s bal­loons. The de­liv­ery of the sig­nal to var­i­ous lo­ca­tions is the rel­a­tively sim­ple part – the tricky part is keep­ing some­thing up in the air for months at a time. It is in­ter­est­ing that the two projects have gone for dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent mech­a­nisms. The first test flight of Aquila was only in June this year and af­ter 96 min­utes in the air it had a slightly bumpy land­ing that dam­aged the drone but it was a first step.

We used to think our airspace was be­com­ing crowded with 12,024 com­mer­cial planes up in the air at the time I wrote this ar­ti­cle. As Google and Face­book and other play­ers join the mar­ket to de­liver In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity from above, I can see this airspace be­com­ing al­most as crowded.

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