Google Loon

Google and Facebook Race to Provide Worldwide Internet with Drones and Balloons

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This week at industry conferences, both Google and Facebook gave updates on plans to bring internet to the two-thirds of the world that still doesn’t have it. So far it appears Google will win the race to have the first internet technology that offers worldwide connectivity to previously unreachable areas.

On Tuesday at the EmTech Conference in Cambridge, Astro Teller, head of the Google X lab, discussed the current state of Project Loon. The project, announced in June 2013, uses special balloons that float in the stratosphere and rise or fall into layers of wind blowing in the direction they need to travel. People connect to the balloon internet technology by using a special antenna receiver attached to a building.

If Project Loon works out, it will be profitable for Google and a way that they can move into the ISP market. “We haven’t taken a dime of revenue, but if we can figure out a way to take the Internet to five billion people, that’s very valuable,” said Teller. They are also investing over a billion dollars in satellites for the same purpose.

Facebook made no references to profitability of drones since they are not yet testing, but there is obvious potential here. The two-thirds of the world still without internet service could provide a huge new revenue stream. Companies not exploring this type of technology as of yet will fall further behind leaving Google and Facebook with a huge advantage if they can address the challenges they face in deploying these new technologies.

In order for Google to provide wireless internet to cell phones there need to be enough balloons circling the world. Teller says it will have more balloons launched shortly. “In the next year or so we should have a semi-permanent ring of balloons somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere,” he said.

Using the same LTE protocol as cell phones, the balloons can reach speeds of 22 megabits per second to antennas and five megabits per second to mobile devices. According to the Project Loon site, “each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter at speeds comparable to 3G. For balloon-to-balloon and balloon-to-ground communications, the balloons use antennas equipped with specialized radio frequency technology.”

The balloons stay in the air at around 60,000 feet for 100 days using solar power. They’ve been tested so far in the US, New Zealand and Brazil, and Teller said that Google’s balloons have traveled over 2 million kilometers so far.

On Monday during the Social Good Summit in New York City, Yael Maguire, engineering director for Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, spoke about its drone project. “We’re going to have to push the edge of solar technology, battery technology, composite technology,” he said. “There are a whole bunch of challenges.”

Facebook is behind Google’s timeframe for testing and launch of services. Facebook just formed its Connectivity Lab earlier this year. The lab is part of Internet.org, a group of companies committed to promoting new technology to connect the world to the internet.

“Making the internet available to every person on earth is a goal too large and too important for any one company, group, or government to solve alone,” according to it’s site. “Internet.org’s partners have come together to meet this challenge because they believe in the power of a connected world.”

The drones use solar power and are about the size of a commercial 747 jet. “We’re taking on a whole bunch of technical risk, but we’re also taking on whole bunch of regulatory risk, because there are no rules about flying planes outside of 60,000 feet and above,” said Maguire. “There are no rules about beaming signals down to people in those environments.”

The Connectivity Lab’s drones will be ready to begin testing by next year with service deployment still two to five years away.

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