The age of Internet airways

The age of Internet airways

Apart from these Loon balloons, the X labs are credited with bringing other seemingly impossible projects to life.

By Abhinav Purohit

Published: Sun 30 Nov 2014, 12:06 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 7:09 PM

It is barely a year-and-a-half since Google made waves in the technology world with the announcement of its ambitious Project Loon. Tasked with the mission of delivering Internet for everyone, the company set out to create a network of high-altitude balloons, floating about 32km-high in the Earth’s stratosphere, that beamed down signals for high-speed Internet.

This science-fictionesque project was the brain child of the Google X — a semi-secret lab facility managed by Google that focuses on making major technological advancements. Apart from these Loon balloons, the X labs are credited with bringing other seemingly impossible projects to life, such as the Google Glass project as well as Google’s fleet of self-driving cars.

The team at Google X conceptualised the Project Loon network to connect people in rural and remote areas who previously did not have an Internet connection. Additionally, the Loon balloons were also expected to help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.

Since the initial announcement of the project in June 2013, Google has moved from conducting small scale controlled tests to announcing its first ever partnership with a telecom operator for this project. Google and Telstra, Australia’s largest telecoms company have agreed to work together to make Project Loon a reality. Both companies will be conducting a series of tests in December this year to test the viability of the project. Although Google has been running test flights for its Loon balloons for about two years now, this would be its first ever collaboration with a telecom operator.

However, Google is not alone in its quest for controlling the aerial Internet. The research arm of Facebook, called the Facebook Connectivity Lab, is already working on building flying drones that can help deliver Internet from the sky. This project is centred on using solar-powered high-altitude planes that can provide Internet access in suburban areas. This project also includes deploying a network of low-orbiting satellites for coverage in the more remote areas.

Both these projects are still at early stages of testing and it would take several years before a commercially viable aerial network could be deployed by either of the technologies. But these initiatives hold immense promise for a connected future — and the Middle East region has a lot to look forward to with respect to these projects.

To begin with, the region — especially the countries of Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE that have large areas with very low habitation. To serve connectivity to these areas — say the deserts of Abu Dhabi in the UAE or the Jizan region in Saudi Arabia — is quite an expensive proposition for the telecom operators using traditional technologies. This is especially true owing to the fact that the number of users in these areas is very low, and thus, the operators struggle to drive scale economies needed for a robust and reliable coverage.

But the advent of aerial Internet technologies could change this landscape completely, allowing operators to extend coverage to previously unconnected areas in an economical manner. Doing so would help elevate the overall connectivity situation for the area as well as unlock new possibilities that the mobile and Internet technologies allow, such as mobile banking etc. Another big advantage that the aerial Internet will offer would be to ramp up coverage and connectivity on the go, wherever needed. A typical example of this could be during the time of Haj, when millions of pilgrims descend on the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, resulting in a sudden spike in the connectivity needs of these cities and thus posing a major threat to both network performance and customer experience.

Others examples of this scenario might be during big events such as the Dubai Expo 2020 where an estimated 25 million people are expected to visit the venue over a six months period.

In these situations, currently the telecom operators struggle to meet the connectivity demands of the peak season and to find adequate users to utilise the installed capacity during off-peak times.

The aerial Internet technologies can prove to be an able solution in these situations as well. Here, during peak times, the balloons / drones would ideally be able to fly over to these areas for a limited time, to boost coverage and capacity by supplementing the available network resources. This will help alleviate short term capacity crunches, allowing people uninterrupted and high quality data access at all time. At present, there are quite a few obstacles for these things to happen. Apart from the technology itself, which will develop soon going by the results of the tests so far, other important factors need to be conceded. The foremost amongst these is that of cost and economics — how cost efficient could these technologies get in the coming few years to make their aim of affordable connectivity possible.

Further, the business models of these deployments too need to be debated well. It will be important to understand which entities — the telecom operators or the Internet giants like Facebook and Google – will own these deployments and thus be able charge the uses for the Internet access and data use. What also needs to be understood is how these new deployments will interact with the existing set up of satellites and telecoms towers and will there be interference between these signal types.

These questions do not have easy answers but one thing is for sure, the discussions around aerial Internet are expected to dominate the technology debate over the coming few years.

The writer is a UAE-based strategy consultant specialising in the telecoms industry. Views expressed by him are his own and do not reflect the newspaper’s policy.

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