Google begins world-first balloon-borne broadband trial in Canterbur
Google has kicked off its “Project Loon trial” in Canterbury this afternoon.
The scheme involved using balloons, flying at twice the altitude of commercial aircraft, which beam wireless broadband at 3G-level bandwidth (the sort of internet speed most people get from their cellphone).
Around 30 balloons have been launched as part of the trial. Collectively, they will offer broadband to a 10,000 square kilometre area.
Google spokeswoman Annie Baxter says 50 Christchurch homes have been given antennas that let them pick up a wireless broadband signal when one of the balloons is within 20kim.
Entrepreneur Charles Nimmo became the first to connect.
Ms Baxter says Google is working with the Crown-owned Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand (or Reannz) on broadband connectivity for the project. Reannz operates the high-speed $100 million Karen network used by universities and research institutes.
“Though we use similar frequencies as normal wi-fi, we have designed Loon to work using a specialized, non-standard radio protocol — that means our radios and antennas can only receive Loon signals and they filter out ground-based wi-fi. We have to do this to achieve high bandwidth over the long distances (20+ km) involved,” Ms Baxter tells NBR.
ABOVE: Media shoal around one of the balloons (via @FedFarmers).
Once it finds partners, the search giant sees bands of balloons circling the earth at the same latitude, providing broadband from above for those living in remote areas, or caught without internet access after a natural disaster.
There was no immediate word on the cost of the project, or what (if any) connection costs might be charged once it’s up and running proper.
Another Google broadband initiative, Google Fibre in the US, sees ultrafast internet offered free (bar a $US300 one-off connection fee) as a basic service, and up to $US120 a month with various extras including full-speed access and TV channels.
Google says for the moment, “there are major cost challenges”.
Each balloon is equipped with a solar panel “the size of a basketball backboard” and a batttery about 10-times the size of a laptop’s. With all-day sun guaranteed in the stratesophere, Google says the batteries will charge enough to last through the night, allowing for 24×7 flying.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker says, “We couldn’t be prouder that Canterbury is the first place in the world to pilot this new technology from Google. Here in Christchurch, we’re well aware of the importance of connectivity in crisis situations, and Project Loon could be of major benefit to aid organisations and disaster-affected governments alike as they help get cities up and running again.”
Installing the altitude control system. The balloons change altitude to catch wind currents in different directions.
ABOVE: Loons being repared, then flying near the Southern Alps; an antenna for receiving balloon-born broadband (images above and below via Google; click to zoom).
Federated Farmers CEO Connor English says, “Access to rural broadband is critical to New Zealand’s future. It is the next big enabler to improve productivity in our export and tourism sectors and more importantly, it recognises one key point; rural people are people too. Project Loon could address the deficit in rural infrastructure and deliver great benefit to people and businesses based in the countryside.”