In recent days, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, signed a deal with Telefónica to bring high-speed Internet to the Amazon region of Peru. The service would begin operating in 2020, once the permits to work in the area have been resolved. A detail attracts the attention of this deal: stratospheric balloons will be responsible for providing the service.
The CEO of Internet para Todos in Peru, Teresa Gomes, recalled that the company was born to connect millions of people in Latin America, including 6 million Peruvians, without an adequate Internet connection.
Today, everyone accepts that providing Internet connection in the most remote regions of the world is a necessity to combat the digital divide and offer more development opportunities to the people who live there. Likewise, governments accept that the Internet is essential to boost the development of nations. And technology companies recognize that extending connectivity in the world is the only way they have today to expand their market.
However, rugged geography is imposed as an impediment to the development of a telecommunications infrastructure capable of bringing the Internet to the most remote parts of the world.
The race to bring the Internet to the last corner of the world
Overcoming the natural barriers that are imposed to extend Internet services to the most remote population has required creative solutions from Silicon Valley companies. With the purchase of Ascenta in March 2014, Facebook opted for drones charged with solar energy to send Internet connection from the stratosphere to remote areas.
After acquiring Ascenta, Mark Zuckerberg commented on the suitability of drones to connect to remote places. The Facebook CEO said that thanks to the efficiency and duration of high altitude drones, they could remain in flight for months or years. “They have greater durability than globes, and their location can be controlled more precisely,” the executive said.
Google relies more on balloons than drones. The tech giant also acquired an improved drone company with solar panels: Titan Aerospace. The company purchased in April 2014 to take an Internet connection to remote locations. However, in 2017, Google abandoned the project.
The epic of Loon: Icarus and Daedalus
The Loon project, responsible for carrying the Internet through balloons, began in August 2011. The first balloon built in the Google X Labs – the division that develops the craziest projects of Google, such as Google Lens or autonomous cars – was called Icarus, while Daedalus was the name of the team that worked on its development.
Thus began an epic story. Like Icarus, the first balloons developed by the company fell sharply. Imperceptible leaks prevented the balloons from staying long in the air, while the team had to seek experts in areas ranging from textiles to aerospace engineering to better prototype.
In this way, Loon began to improve his balloon management standards. The team had to walk with special socks to avoid holes, and the sutures were strengthened. Perseverance soon rewarded the efforts.
A balloon trip to connect the world
After years of work, the Loon project managed to create a balloon that remained up to 187 days in the air and went around the world nine times, a milestone that even Jules Verne never imagined. The aircraft were included with GPS to make them easier to recover, as well as solar panels and lithium batteries.
At present, each globe is capable of providing the Internet with a 4G LTE connection in a diameter of 40 km. A connected globe network can, in turn, cover 5,000 km2. With this infrastructure, it is possible to offer a connection of 15 megabytes per second (Mbps) to a mobile phone, while a MiFi device can connect at 40 Mbps.
While Zuckerberg is right that it is more difficult to control the position of the balloons in the air, Loon has known how to solve this problem through Big Data. With data related to the wind and forecasts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Google’s project has been able to develop algorithms that allow predicting and simulating wind patterns.
Stratospheric balloons also take advantage of the fact that in the stratosphere, the wind blows in one direction at a height and another in a different direction. In this way, it is possible to control better the direction in which the balloons move.
Loon in other regions of the globe
Alphabet’s alliance with Telefonica in Peru is not the first of the Loon project in the world.
In July 2015, Google announced that Sri Lanka would be the first country to have an Internet network through its stratospheric balloons. This project did not prosper because the radio spectrum requested by the company was already in use for other purposes in the country. In December 2016, the project was abandoned.
Loon had better luck in Oceania. In New Zealand, the company allied with Vodafone, while doing the same with Telstra in Australia. In these countries, the company helps mobile operators to cover the areas they cannot reach, such as most of the rural areas.
As in Peru, Loon has already signed an agreement with Telkom Kenya to bring the connection to the rural areas of the African country.
In Brazil, Loon worked with operators Vivo and Telebras to offer connections to areas with no Internet service in the country.
Loon has proven to be an effective solution in emergencies. After the passage of Hurricane Mary in Puerto Rico in 2017, the company collaborated with AT&T and T-Mobile to restore communications.
Loon has also been doing tests in Peru for a while, and since 2017 he has helped in the disasters. When the tremor was in May 2019 and in collaboration with CenturyLink – the company with the permits to manage the E-band in Peru -, Loon provided an Internet connection to the areas that were held incommunicado by the cataclysm, as it also did after the floods that the country experienced in 2017.
The executive president of Telefónica in Peru, Pedro Cortez, mentioned that both companies collaborate since 2014 to test the technology.
Loon Alastair Westgarth CEO stressed that the company would not be where it is without Peru. “After years of testing in the country, we have achieved many programs that prove that our technology connects people in need and accelerates the growth of our business.
So far, permits have been the main problem Loon has faced to spread. Alliances with mobile operators have allowed him to overcome these problems, and he is now at a critical moment to demonstrate the viability of his project.
Greater connection, the key to higher growth
According to analysis, increasing Internet coverage by 10% increases the Gross Domestic Product of a country by 1.4%. For this reason, the rapid expansion of a telecommunications network is one of the priorities of Latin American governments.
Loon and Alphabet’s efforts in Peru are not isolated. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared his intention to extend the Internet to the most remote areas of the country using the fiber optic of the Federal Electricity Commission. Facebook has set its sights on Mexico and Brazil to boost its satellite Internet initiative.
As Teresa Gomes mentioned, the challenge of connecting millions of Latin Americans includes reaching areas of difficult access with innovative and sustainable technologies that allow us to overcome geographical, technological, and economic complexities.
With the arrival of 5G, the connection in rural areas will be even more critical. A reliable infrastructure will be necessary to boost Agrotech and meet the goals of sustainable development for all. Crazy ideas from High-Tech companies like Loon are required to achieve these goals.