Alphabet’s Project Loon balloons to deliver Internet to Indonesia’s islands

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Alphabet’s Project Loon balloons to deliver Internet to Indonesia’s islands.

Google’s Internet-beaming balloons are ready to take off on the next phase of their mission to deliver online access in regions where most people live offline. MOUNTAIN VIEW: Alphabet Inc, the new holding company for Google, has teamed up with three Indonesian telecommunications companies to expand Internet access in that country using solar-powered balloons.

Alphabet aims to bring the Internet within the reach of some 100 million people in Indonesia through its Project Loon balloons flying 20 kilometers above the earth.Project Loon, an effort to beam Internet access from balloons in the stratosphere, plans a test with Indonesia’s three largest wireless carriers in 2016, project chief Mike Cassidy said Wednesday. About 250 million people live in the country composed of about 17,000 islands in that part of southeast Asia, although only 42 million have Internet access, according to the CIA’s estimates. The company said Thursday that the country’s top three mobile network operators—Indosat, Telkomsel, and XL Axiata—have agreed to test the balloon-powered LTE Internet connections over Indonesia next year. We hope this could help local operators extend the coverage of their existing networks, and reach further into rural and remote areas.” Google previously tested Project Loon in New Zealand.

That’s the huge infrastructure challenge faced by Indonesia, and one that Google hopes to address using its high altitude ‘Project Loon’ balloons. Google’s 2-year-old “Project Loon” programme aims to change that by transmitting high-speed Internet signals from clusters of balloons floating about 60,000 feet above the Earth. The project sends solar-powered balloons 16,000 feet (5,000 meters) into the air to deliver Internet access through radio frequency signals to antennae connected to buildings on the ground.

The program, which was first announced in June 2013, is the kind of thing that could pay off for Google in the long run — just the sort of thing Google’s umbrella company, Alphabet, was intended to foster. Although the project is still being funded primarily by money that Google makes from digital advertising, it recently became part of an independent lab called X that is run by Google’s new parent company, Alphabet Inc.

Mike Cassidy, project leader for Loon, said that “Indonesia is the perfect fit for Project Loon,” and it’s hard to disagree: a dispersed nation relying on satellite for its limited internet connectivity could benefit hugely from cheap, widely available 10Mbps connections. Alphabet frames Project’s Loon as a noble endeavour striving to get about 100 million currently unconnected people tapped into the vast reservoir of knowledge, entertainment and conveniences available online. Project Loon is part of Alphabet’s secretive X division, where the company experiments with far-off technologies dubbed “moonshots” such as its self-driving car technology.

By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network that helps telecommunications services providers extend their networks. Until now, satellite-delivered internet access has been the only option for many – although the satellite dish installation and data costs can be prohibitively expensive for poorer communities.

But it could also enrich Google by expanding the potential audience that can query its search engine, watch video on YouTube, correspond through Gmail and click on digital ads. The use of balloons to fill coverage gaps where traditional broadband connectivity cannot reach is particularly relevant in Indonesia which is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands with jungles and mountains. Project Loon can help overcome the difficulties of spreading equipment across the islands, providing connectivity to even the most remote islands, Mike Cassidy, vice president of Project Loon, wrote in a blog post. While Indonesia has close to 100% mobile penetration, only 23%, are smartphones, which means that even if the coverage is there, consumers may not have the devices to access the network. The Internet access will be sold through wireless service providers in Indonesia, where there the number of mobile phones – about 319 million – outnumber people.

But most of those phones do not connect to the Internet because users can’t afford data plans, or more frequently, live in remote or rocky terrains where it’s impractical or too expensive to install the equipment need to deliver high-speed Internet access. In 2014, the project switched to a technology used in most wireless networks, and said it aimed to bolster existing networks rather than build a new one from scratch. To pull it off, the project’s engineers must choreograph a high-altitude dance, ensuring that as one balloon drifts out of a targeted territory’s Internet-receiving range, another one will float in to fill the void.

He added that it is a cheaper way to offer Internet service, especially in areas that have “jungles or where you have to reach islands,” such as Indonesia. Alexander Rusli, chief executive of Indosat, said it’s unlikely that Indonesian carriers would ever reach Loon’s target area through traditional cell towers and fiber-optic cables. Eventually, Project Loon envisions dispatching its balloons to other unconnected regions in the world, ranging from small villages in Africa to the woods of California. Facebook’s Free Basics service that offers free access to a few services through a local telecommunications operator has been criticized for creating a “walled garden” to promote a few services including Facebook.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin envisions Project Loon eventually creating millions of jobs around the world to raise the standard of living for now-impoverished people as they are able to get online to educate themselves and make new connections. Indonesian President Joko Widodo was scheduled to attend the announcement on a trip to Silicon Valley that also included a stop at Apple, but he cancelled this week to deal with a haze crisis at home stemming from smoldering forest fires. Zuckerberg said the “zero-rating” or toll-free provision of services was not opposed to net neutrality, which has been recognized in the U.S. and Europe.

One challenge is to prevent Loon’s signal from interfering with existing wireless networks as the balloons pass over cities where telcos already offer service, Mr. Photo: Google “The emotional distance of the world is shrinking, thanks to the communications we enjoy today,” said Brin, who oversees the X lab as Alphabet’s president. The hundreds of balloons needed to provide coverage for each area are coordinated and tracked via mission control to optimally position the fleet to provide the best coverage. Steering is made possible by moving the balloons to different altitudes – where stratospheric winds travel in different directions. “To provide a continuous internet service you’re talking about a complex choreography where thousands of balloons are steered and programmed in an automated fashion,” said Cassidy, adding that the system makes sure another balloon comes into range as soon as another has left. The country’s largest telecommunication company, Telekomunikasi, rejected Google’s plan, arguing that it would undermine its own investment in fibre-optic infrastructure. “Clearly the project would harm not only Telkom, but also other telecommunication companies.

Speaking at Google HQ, Telkomsei’s CEO Ririek Adriansyah was eager to point out that Loon won’t mean a reduction in its own cell tower infrastructure. “Loon is focusing on hard-to-reach areas, not those we can reach using traditional methods. Facebook has has plans for solar-powered drones capable of flying for three months at a time without landing, although so far the company only has only unveiled one full-sized aircraft.

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