A Would-be Wi-fi Paradise
Telecom ▶ Sri Lanka hopes to fill its skies with Google’s Loon balloons ▶ “They would be the first country to do it”
Sri Lanka has enjoyed an era of strong economic growth since its bloody, 26-year civil war ended in 2009. To keep it going, the government is trying to make the island nation a technology hub. It’s investing in new undersea Internet cables, putting money behind startups, and working with Microsoft to embrace cloud computing. It’s also been wooing Google and Facebook to host tests for some of their most ambitious experiments, from self-driving cars to drones. First up: the balloons.
Google’s Project Loon is an effort to develop high-altitude balloons that can bring Internet connectivity to remote areas. The technology has been tested over the past couple of years, but not at scale. Rama, a quasi-public company controlled by venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya and the Sri Lankan government, aims to do just that. Google sent the first Loon balloon above Sri Lanka in February, and the government says it’s working with the company to blanket the country with coverage from another dozen.
Within a year, Palihapitiya says, Loon balloons will turn the Indian Ocean country, which is about the size of West Virginia, into one big Wi-fi zone, giving Google the first real sense of whether Loon can be commercially viable. “This is really a profound thing the government has sponsored and is really pushing,” says Palihapitiya, an early Facebook employee who runs Silicon Valley venture firm Social Capital. “If we can do this in Sri Lanka, that sets the tone for the rest of the world.”
Under a deal Palihapitiya negotiated, Google is leading the Loon launches, development, and maintenance, and Rama will run the software to control access to the balloons’ Internet connections and handle billing. People will still pay local operators for data, and carriers will pay Rama an as-yet-undisclosed fee to help ferry traffic.
The Loon fleet could offer a cheaper alternative to undersea Internet cables, which pass through the regional choke points of Singapore and Hong Kong. Carriers in developing Asian and South American nations pay more than 10 times the bandwidth prices their European and U.S. counterparts do, researcher Telegeography estimates. (The median wholesale price for a monthly 10-gigabit-per-second connection in Los Angeles or Frankfurt is $1; in Mumbai, it’s $15.) Sri Lanka’s data use is growing 45 percent a year and will likely do so for the next decade, the United Nations estimates.
Increasing the country’s bandwidth is crucial to achieving President Maithripala Sirisena’s goal of propelling the nation into the ranks of developed economies through technology. The average Internet speed available to the country’s broadband customers is about 5.1 megabits per second, Akamai Technologies estimates—better than in India (2.5 Mbps) or China (3.7 Mbps), but a fraction of the average speed in the U.S. (11.7 Mbps), Singapore (12.5 Mbps), or Hong Kong
① To prepare for launch, the Loon balloon is filled with gas
② Shutter doors keep gusts from carrying it away too early
③ When ready, technicians expose the balloon to the wind
④ It’s supposed to hover 14 miles above the earth’s surface, beaming down Wi-fi connectivity