You are probably reading this article on your smartphone connected to the nearest cell tower or your laptop connected to a WiFi router. Some people in Kenya, meanwhile, are doing the same, but through balloons floating 65,000 feet above Earth.
These balloons, operated by Loon, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, are hoping to solve a problem that many are unaware of. As ubiquitous as the internet seems, nearly half the world’s population still does not have access to it. In other words, one of every two people across the globe is not part of the digital revolution that is shaping the 21st century.
But there’s a lot of disparity in these numbers. Among developed nations, like the US and EU, internet penetration is well over 80 percent. But in many African nations, however, this figure drops to lower than 30 percent.
Among the challenges faced in bringing this technology to lesser developed nations is the high cost of infrastructure. Providing reliable internet access requires laying tens of thousands of miles of cables and setting up just as many mobile towers.
Many innovative solutions are in the works to overcome this challenge. Among them are SpaceX’s plan to create a satellite constellation and beam internet from space and Facebook’s plan to fly internet providing drones.
But the most preposterous idea to emerge was Google’s plan to provide the internet with balloons. An idea so absurd that the person appointed as the CEO of this very project recently remarked: “Frankly, I didn’t think it would work. It seemed too crazy, even for a company with a reputation for making the outlandish possible.”
Yet, it’s the most promising solution at the moment.
Do Loon balloons actually work?
What started off as a secret Google project in 2011 has now come a long way.
The very first tests involved off-the-shelf WiFi routers packed into styrofoam cooler boxes and attached to all kinds of weird look balloons. These tests allowed the team to study the feasibility of the project and hone in on the right shape and material for the balloon.
Then in 2013, a sheep farmer in Canterbury, New Zealand became the first user to connect to the internet through a test balloon launched by Loon. A day later, the pilot experiment successfully demonstrated connectivity to nearly 50 users in Christchurch, New Zealand.
In 2014, the team showcased this project’s potential by connecting a school in Campo Maior, Brazil to the internet for the first time. The same year the project accumulated nearly 3 million kilometers in test flights, amassing a trove of data to learn from.
Loon’s ability to serve at scale was unexpectedly proven when Peru was hit by terrible floods in early 2017 and some of its telecom infrastructure got damaged. Since Loon was conducting tests in the country around the same time, it partnered with telecom operator Telefonica and the Peruvian Government to provide internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people affected by the flood.
Later the same year, Loon once again came to the rescue in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria devastated the territory and wiped out 95 percent of the cell towers. This time around, Loon partnered with US cellular providers AT&T and T-Mobile to serve an even larger population of people. It was able to restore basic connectivity to about 200,000 people within four weeks.
By 2018, Loon’s ability to provide internet connectivity was neither questioned nor did the idea sound crazy anymore. But the project yet again found an unfortunate moment to shine. When an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit Peru, Loom began filling connectivity gaps in the region within an astonishing 48 hours. A year later, Loon signed a commercial contract with Internet Para Todos to bring internet connectivity to the Amazon Rainforest Region in Peru.
In what might be its most significant achievement to date, in early July 2020, Loon began its first commercial operations when it turned on its services in Kenya. The launch of the service was accelerated to fulfill the sudden increase in internet demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic. To achieve this landmark feat, Loon partnered with Telkom Kenya and is providing LTE coverage to its subscribers across underserved western and central regions of the country. The 50,000 square kilometers of service area is covered by a fleet of about 35 balloons.
Now that you’ve seen these balloons do actually work, let’s get into how they work.
What makes a Loon balloon?
The balloon itself is made of polyethylene and is built to last over a hundred days in stratospheric conditions where winds can blow over 100 km/h and temperatures can drop to minus 90 degrees celsius.
Attached to the bottom of the ballon is a set of highly sophisticated equipment, neatly summarized in the graphic below.
The most instrumental equipment are the transceivers. You can think of these as floating cell towers. Since Loon uses standard cellular technologies, any LTE-enabled phone will be able to connect to its network like it would to a regular cell tower. This eliminates the need for any extra effort from the user to take advantage of this technology. In fact, customers will probably never know that they’re connected to a Loon balloon.
How do these balloons provide internet connectivity?
The workings of a Loon balloon are easy to grasp. The transreceivers onboard connect with the ground centers of mobile network operators like Telkom Kenya on the ground which are connected with the rest of the internet through traditional fiber-optic cables. These antennas then relay this internet signal between a mesh of balloons and finally down to a user’s mobile phone.
Loon’s biggest advantage compared to traditional towers is its height of operation. It flies over 20 km above Earth. To give you some context, that’s twice the height at which commercial airplanes fly. This allows each balloon to cover large swathes of area that would otherwise require hundreds of mobile towers. A single balloon can cover over 5,000 square kilometers, an area four times the size of New York City and a hundred times that of an average cell tower. But it is optimal to have multiple balloons serve an area to deliver the same bandwidth capacity and performance as cell towers.
How do Loon balloons get to their service region?
This is where things start to get complicated and fascinating. Unlike what your intuition might suggest, these balloons are not just released from the ground above which they serve. They instead fly in from Loon’s launch sites in Nevada or Puerto Rico.
Take, for example, its journey to Kenya. Once the balloon is filled with gas by the launch system and released into the stratosphere from Puerto Rico, it has to make its way to a country that’s 11,000 km (6,800 miles) away. But since balloons do not travel in straight lines, the travel distance is, in fact, multiple factors more.
In the stratosphere, although temperatures can be low and wind speeds are high, there are no clouds, wildlife or harsh weather events. At these stable layers, winds blow in predictable ways. Loon balloons rely on these winds to get to their destination.
Despite its relative predictability, the wind patterns can change. This prevents us from foreseeing the exact route a ballon would take, which is determined in real-time by Loon’s onboard autonomous navigation system, which uses live data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) agency and data that the team has collected over the years.
This system uses predictive models and machine learning algorithms to create maps of the sky that help determine which layer of wind to latch onto to get to the destination. Here’s a time-lapse of one such map. The balloon aims to be in the blue region, which would take it faster to Kenya than if it were in the orange or red region.
The route taken by Loon Balloon HBAL125 is shown below. The balloon took off from Puerto Rico and went around the Cape of Good Hope before taking a planned detour to collect weather data above the Indian Ocean. Eventually, it found its way to Kenya. This journey took about a month, but that includes its detour.
While HBAL125 took the route shown above, another a ballon with the same source and destination will almost certainly take a different route. In fact, the routes taken by two balloons might be so different that one might fly across central Africa to get to Kenya and another might take the trans-Pacific route and fly across Asia to get to Kenya. If you’re interested, you can track the journey of Loon balloons using the callsign HBAL on flightradar24.com.
How do the balloons stay in place after reaching their destination?
It does not get any easier for these balloons once they arrive at their destination. “The one really hard thing is making the balloon be in the place you want it to be,” admits Salvatore Candido, the principal engineer at Loon.
These balloons are at the complete mercy of the winds blowing at 100 mph. The only thing they can do at free will is to move up or down. When a ballon wants to go down, it fills the smaller inner balloon with more air. And when it wants to go back up, it releases this air. But by doing this simple routine in a well-calculated manner, Loon balloons are able to stay in and around a predefined area.
To provide stable 24/7 internet to a given area they rotate among themselves so one balloon takes over from another when the other goes out of service area. The animation below shows just that. The orange balloons are responsible for serving an area and they hand-off this responsibility when they go out of reach.
Initially, Loon planned on having enough balloons circumnavigate the earth such that one would take on communication from the other in a reliable fashion, sort of like a conveyor belt. But in its tests in Puerto Rico, Loon found that its algorithms are sophisticated and smart enough to be able to do this intricate dance in a much narrower area. This dramatically reduced the number of balloons needed to service an area, bringing down the cost along with it.
Is Loon the future?
Telecom operators across the world are closely watching Loon’s operations in Kenya to determine if this solution is actually reliable and profitable.
Although Loon balloons have gone from lasting a few days to over a hundred days, at the end of which they are safely brought down and collected by a recovery team for analysis, this still means new balloons need to be launched every few months to continually provide internet service in an area. The logistics of this are yet to be proven at scale.
The business side of things remains opaque as well. We know nothing about the type of revenue sharing agreement Loon signs with its partners and when it will start breaking even. But we do know that compared to laying cable, building cell towers and sending satellites to space, balloons are more cost-effective. While satellites can cost millions of dollars to build and launch, a balloon costs tens of thousands of dollars. If Loon is able to capture just 5 percent of the market of nearly 4 billion underserved people and charge them a couple of dollars a month, its revenues will soar to tens of billions of dollars a year.
It helps that these balloons rely entirely on solar energy to power its equipment and wind energy to get from one place to another. But the biggest cost advantage comes from the fact that a single balloon can serve far more people than a single cell tower. But this benefit comes with a catch. The ability to serve a larger population puts some constraints on the bandwidth that each individual user gets. In Kenya, initial tests showed an uplink speed of around 5 Mbps, a downlink speed of 19 Mbps, and 19-millisecond latency. Although these speeds are decent for most general uses they are a far cry from what a fiber optic connection offers and what 5G promises. Loon says it can add more balloons to a given area to increase bandwidth capacity but it remains to be seen if balloons can match the superior performance of 5G or if it can serve highly dense regions.
Loon has come under criticism for choosing Kenya as their first battlefield. Compared to other African countries, Kenya has a higher percentage of the population already connected to the internet. Loon’s unique selling point is to connect those who are not yet connected, and they are cannot use Kenya as the grounds for this.
But if there’s one thing the Loon team has shown over the years, it’s their ability to persevere and defy all odds. In their first try, the balloon burst right after take-off. The same happened in the next sixty or so attempts. At the time, some of the best balloon experts wrote off the idea as “absolutely impossible.” But after hundreds of attempts, the company was able to successfully keep a balloon in flight for several weeks at a time. This soon became months and one ballon, in fact, made a record by staying in flight for 223 days and traveling 180,000 kilometers.
Along with this flight time progress, Loon made remarkable advancements in developing navigation algorithms that enabled balloons to travel thousand of miles and stay together in an intricate mesh once they reach the destination. All this progress was put to test and proven to work when Loon came to the rescue in Peru and Puerto Rico. And now with its first commercial venture in Kenya, the once outlandish idea not only seems possible but is the leading solution to bring internet connectivity to the underserved and unserved.