How Google is Using Balloons to Supply 4G LTE Data

Technology is truly amazing. Twenty years ago, internet speeds were laughable by today’s standards and wireless internet didn’t even exist yet. Forget about streaming data to your brick cell phone. No one had even dreamed of 4G LTE speeds, let alone being able to use the internet on your phone; you were lucky to even have it in the house. Now, cell phones and smart devices have gone from being a luxury to the point of being so ubiquitous that there are more mobile devices than people. However, over half the globe is still without access to basic internet service. Installing fiber networks or building cellular mast sites is expensive, and not particularly cost effective for companies to do in relatively unpopulated places. In a world that’s increasingly digitized, how do we help these populations? The people at X believe they have a solution. They call it Project Loon.

How Does This Supply 4G LTE Data?

The geniuses at X responsible for creating Project Loon are working on developing a mobile internet based service based on special balloons that float in the stratosphere and beam 4G LTE internet down to earth, where the signal is picked up by special antennas attached to buildings.

How it works

The stratosphere is free of commercial flights, clouds, and weather events that would affect the balloons. The balloons, which are essentially redesigned weather balloons made by Aerostar, are equipped with special solar-powered electronics that allow them to beam 4G LTE internet to buildings equipped with special antennas to pick up the signal. In the stratosphere, 0there are different wind currents going different directions at different speeds. Working with NOAA, they can use these currents to move balloons by inflating or deflating the balloon to catch different air currents. These winds can travel up to 180 mph. This allows a balloon to travel thousands of miles.

The balloons are currently capable of staying aloft for about six months. As long as there is a balloon within 40 km, they can provide Internet, and if one balloon gives out or moves along the airstream, other balloons in the fleet of balloons can replace it. The radar technology carried by the balloons will allow them to create links and “talk” to each other to relay data back and forth. While the original idea was to have a stream of balloons circumnavigating the earth, recently they have figured out how to make the balloons stay more or less in the same place for up to 3 months. 

Currently, roughly 60% of the global population is without internet access. Google hopes to use this technology to bring Internet access to developing countries that cannot afford to install in-ground fiber optic networks. Testing has already taken place in Brazil, New Zealand, and the isolated interior of Australia and has been successful. They plan to let wireless carriers lease the balloons to provide Internet to customers on their bands, rather than Google making the huge financial investment in trying to have their own.

It’s not entirely altruistic; having more Internet users means ad traffic will go up, which is part of how Google makes its money. Other companies are hoping to cash in on this as well. Facebook has invested in using drones to provide internet coverage to help aid in disaster relief, and Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is looking into similar uses of drones, as well as satellite-supported Internet. However, drones and satellites are far more expensive than the type of balloons being made by Raven Aerostar for Project Loon.

Making this new technology widely available is obviously still in the works, but providing Internet access to the 4 billion plus people who currently have none will help in countless ways, and already has. Earlier this year, Project Loon balloons helped with recovery efforts after the major flooding in Peru. With major players like SpaceX and Facebook working on similar technologies to Project Loon, it seems fairly certain that aerial internet will become a reality. In the meantime, if you are relying on cellular data to stay connected but are getting poor or unreliable signal, check out our cell phone signal boosters and see how they can help you get the most out of your data plan.

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