SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Alphabet Inc through Google and other subsidiaries has invested heavily over the last decade to make high-speed internet accessible to billions more people.
Instead of costly rollouts of cell towers or fibre cables, it has considered or tested blimps, satellites, drones and lasers. Other companies are pursuing such technologies. But Alphabet has found balloons to be the most commercially viable option for now. Here are more details on its internet balloon unit Loon, according to the company.
The start-up was incubated in Google’s research lab in 2011. Loon was spun out as an Alphabet subsidiary in July 2018.
Loon is located in Mountain View, California, where it has an around-the-clock flight operations centre.
Balloons are made from a thin plastic and filled with helium. They weigh about 165 pounds including an air pump, and carry an additional 165 pounds or so of solar panels, antennas and other equipment. Each balloon is about as long and wide as a tennis court when fully pressurized in the stratosphere at 60,000 feet.
Balloons take off from custom launch pads in Nevada and Puerto Rico. The units navigate and change altitude with the help of remote control and algorithms.
Balloons descend by parachute at about 12 mph, or about the speed of a skydiver.
Loon coordinates with air-traffic control officials in all countries where it operates. Onboard transponders share each balloon’s location.
Networking gear in the balloon connects to a ground station or satellite. Each balloon provides coverage over about 2,000 square miles. But balloons can also relay the internet connection between each other, extending their range without the need for additional ground equipment.
Balloons can be positioned above almost any spot on Earth in a couple of weeks or less. Units can be added or removed depending on coverage needs, and their parts can be recycled for other uses.
The lifespan of each balloon is only around five months because its plastic degrades. The units are reliant on winds to navigate and the sun to power their networking equipment. Their presence has generated safety concerns from some aviation authorities.
Telefonica used Loon balloons to supplant cell phone towers knocked offline by natural disasters in 2017 and 2019. Loon partnered with AT&T and T-Mobile to provide coverage in Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricane. Loon is slated to start tests with Telkom Kenya in coming months.
Reporting by Paresh Dave