In the small community of Ouanaminthe, Haiti, there is an esteemed school near the outskirts of town where many local children dream of attending. The school is not ostentatious or expensive; tuition is just $200 a year. Rather, it is the promise of a high school diploma and the possibility of post-secondary education that encourages enrollment.
The students I met in Ouanaminthe all share the same overwhelming enthusiasm to learn. An enthusiasm that is unwavering despite lacking half of the educational resources students in developed nations are allotted. These students learn the old-fashioned way. They write instead of typing and don’t have the luxury of searching Google for the right answers. Wi-Fi only exists near the principle’s office, and even that is unreliable at best. Imagine what these kids could accomplish with constant connectivity.
We take if for granted. The Internet has become so engrained in our everyday existence that without it, we feel vulnerable. To the industrialized world, a blackout is catastrophic. To the 4.2 billion individuals without it, Internet access appears to be a far-fetched fantasy. It is unlikely that telecommunications companies will build out the infrastructure for web access in rural areas without substantial personal gain. However, as technology companies are beginning to invest in solving this issue, a connected world may be closer than it seems.
Project Loon was conspired in the Google X Research Labs. Richard DeVaul, MIT alumni, headed the effort, hypothesizing that balloons could deliver wireless Internet access worldwide if one could map their course in the stratosphere via wind patterns. The project was considered a “moon-shot”, a high-risk, high-reward operation, but with meticulous data crunching and computations on wind currents using the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) archives, it was given the green light from executives.
Project Loon balloons exist in the stratosphere, soaring between 10km and 60km in altitude. The balloons effectively avoid weather cells and airplane routes but must endure a rather hostile environment; air pressure is 1 percent that at sea level, UV rays are threatening, and temperatures can reach -80 degrees Celsius. To complicate the situation further, each layer of wind in the stratosphere varies in speed and direction. One miscalculation, and the balloons can deviate from their intended route.
The balloons are strategically designed to withstand stratospheric conditions for 100 days. There are three vital components to each balloon, the envelope, solar panels, and a box holding its electronic workings. The envelope is made from sheets of polyethylene plastic and inflates to approximately fifteen meters wide by twelve meters tall. The solar array is made of monocrystalline solar cells and has the ability to capture energy in any orientation, producing at maximum sunlight, 100 Watts of power, which helps charge a lithium ion battery for when the sun sets. The equipment box includes radio antennas, data sensors, and an altitude control system.
DeVaul recruited Google’s search director Mike Cassidy and a team of wireless network experts, aerospace engineers, computer scientists, and military veterans to assist with initial beta testing in 2011 and the first pilot test in New Zealand in 2013. The team uses control software dubbed Mission Control. The program can plot each balloons ideal course for a week within less than fifteen minutes. Mission Control relies heavily on NOAA data in its analyses.
People can connect to the balloon network directly from their phones and other LTE devices, a perk of partnering with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum. Every balloon provides connectivity to an 80km diameter area on the ground via LTE wireless communications technology. As smart phones are becoming more economical and available, Project Loon can only encourage this trend by providing optimal connectivity to people in remote locations and filling existing coverage gaps.
Carrier testing in New Zealand, Australia, and Latin America has led to continuous improvements in product design. Project Loon plans to continue its pilot testing in the southern hemisphere, specifically targeting Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The top three Indonesian mobile network operators, Indosat, Telkomsel, and XL Axiata, have agreed to begin testing in 2016 to better the broadband infrastructure of Southeast Asia.
Project Loon’s mission is to establish a ring of uninterrupted global connectivity, but in the process of commercial deployment, don’t be fooled into believing there is no mutual benefit. Internet markets in the United States are virtually saturated. Never mind the corporate social impact, it is also in Google’s best business interest to spend R&D dollars towards cultivating untapped markets. Providing Internet access to even a small portion of the 60 percent of our world’s population currently offline could mean an increased supply of personal data for ad targeting and billions in revenue for Google parent company Alphabet. Why target Southeast Asia first? According to research firm eMarketer, By 2016, more than one in 10 ad dollars in Indonesia will be spent on digital and by 2019, the share will top one in four, while the total media ad market in the country will reach $19.58 billion.
Google claims that Project Loon will be the cheapest solution to worldwide connectivity, less expensive than launching satellites, building infrastructure in rugged terrain, adding cell towers or installing additional fibre optic cables.
Its confidence in world domination however, does not discourage the competition. Facebook is working with Titan Aerospace to manufacture solar-powered drones capable of bringing Internet access to all corners of the developing world. Although more durable and weather resistant, the drone project is far more expensive and less developed; not to mention the potential uproar from sovereign governments spotting unidentifiable machines orbiting their nation’s protected air space.
Entrepreneur and CEO of Telsa Motors, Elon Musk intends to take a satellite approach. With his rocket company SpaceX, Musk wants to launch 4,000 internet-providing satellites by 2030. However, with a hefty price tag, cost may prove too formidable for Musk unless he can follow through with plans to create a reusable rocket model that effectively launches and returns back to Earth in one piece. Meanwhile, startup company OneWeb has been involved with satellite development for over 15 years. Backed financially by Qualcomm and the Virgin Group, OneWeb expects to have hundreds of functioning satellites that can beam their signals down to solar-powered rooftop antennas no later than 2018.
It wouldn’t be true competition without an underdog. Enter radical thinker Harald Haas, who challenges conventional methods of connectivity. In his Ted Talk that you can watch below, Haas explains how his team pioneered a new approach to providing Internet access to the 4 billion souls offline. His technique called Li-Fi, still in a developmental prototype phase, uses off-the-shelf LEDs and solar panels to transmit data.
All ulterior motives aside, technology companies and ambitious entrepreneurs have sufficient resources and funding to connect our world in the next decade. If their efforts succeed and students in villages like Ouanaminthe, Haiti can access tools to better their education, what more can we really ask for?