Google (Alphabet) has announced that Loon, which is a long-running project that aims to distribute mobile broadband (4G / 5G) connectivity from High Altitude Platforms (stratospheric balloons), will in a few weeks time see its first commercial trial take place in Kenya (Africa).
The super-pressure, helium-filled and solar powered balloons are designed to drift (controlled) at 20km (12 miles) above Earth’s surface in the stratosphere. From there they can act a bit like a budget Satellite, albeit with significantly less coverage and so several balloons are usually required to cover a wide area (e.g. during 2017 one test used 7 balloons to cover an area of 1,000km).
The balloons are designed to stay aloft for months at a time (one test remained in the sky for 223 days) and it’s possible to relay data, point-to-point, between two balloons at distances of up to 600km. As part of this they use directional patch antennas to transmit their signals to ground stations and 4G (LTE) users. Consumers will need nothing more than a standard 4G phone to connect to the internet via one of Loon’s balloons.
As an example, Loon’s technology was recently deployed in Peru to help keep people connected following a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. Loon and Telefónica had already been working on a commercial trial of the service to cover remote parts of the Amazon region and so were able to redirect some of their balloons toward the problem area.
Back in April Google also secured an investment of £97m ($125m) from SoftBank’s HAPSMobile to support the commercial development of this technology. In keeping with that we’ve today learnt that they’ve teamed-up with Telkom Kenya in order to conduct their first trial by around the end of July 2019.
The trial will be essential for proving that Loon can work reliably on a commercial basis. At present there are still plenty of doubters and at the same time Google is facing a lawsuit at home, which alleges that they nabbed a competitor’s balloon ideas all the way back in 2008. The company said it would “vigorously defend” itself when the case begins early next month in San Jose, California.
The approach could also face competition from a new generation of compact Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellites in mega constellations. Hopefully Loon doesn’t have its head in the clouds and turns out to be more than just a loony pie in the sky project. Puns.. we have them.