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Innovative Internet for Remote Areas

Billions of people live in areas still without telecommunications access. Innovative delivery ideas emerged in 2013, including balloons. 2014 updates include a Facebook video explaining its solutions using satellites, drones, and lasers, Google's plans to add satellites to its mix of balloons and drones, and an announcement of a surprising new player.

Google's Project Loon is to deliver solar-powered Internet to remote areas via a global network of high-altitude balloons. The company began testing the concept in 2013 with a thirty-balloon pilot over New Zealand's South Island."The balloons ascend like weather balloons until they reach the stratosphere, where they drift above 18 km (60,000 ft), safely above the altitudes used for aviation…Loon balloons are superpressure, which enable them to stay aloft for 100+ days at a time…Loon balloons are also unique in that they are steerable and entirely solar powered." (A Project Loon test balloon crashed into power lines in Washington state (USA) in June 2014.)

"Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter at speeds comparable to 3G. For balloon-to-balloon and balloon-to-ground communications, the balloons use antennas equipped with specialized radio frequency technology. Project Loon currently uses ISM bands (specifically 2.4 and 5.8 GHz bands) that are available for anyone to use...Signals are transmitted from the balloons to a specialized Internet antenna mounted to the side of a home or workplace that use radio frequency technology. The Internet antenna is connected to a consumer grade router. Web traffic that travels through the balloon network is ultimately relayed to ground stations, where it’s connected to pre-existing Internet infrastructure, like fiber cables and our local telecommunications partners."

This is the ultimate off-grid deployment. "Each unit’s electronics are powered by an array of solar panels that sits between the envelope [inflatable part of the balloon] and the hardware. In full sun, these panels produce 100 Watts of power - enough to keep the unit running while also charging a battery for use at night. By moving with the wind and charging in the sun, Project Loon is able to power itself using only renewable energy sources." This is unlike the noisy, dirty diesel generators that power most of the world's remote base stations.

Google's interest in internet delivery did not stopped with balloons. The company acquired drone manufacturer Titan Areospace in April 2014. USA Today reported, "The 20-person Titan team will be paired with Google's Project Loon…[Titan's] vehicles can stay aloft for up to five years without having to land or refuel, making them an intriguing possibility for beaming out Internet service, according to drone experts."

Google's drone acquisition came within weeks of Facebook's acquisition of Ascenta, a UK designer of solar-power drones. The Guardian reported, "Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, has unveiled plans to beam broadband connections from the skies, using satellites, lasers and unmanned high-altitude aircraft…[Ascenta] will become part of Facebook's not-for-profit venture, joining a team of scientists and engineers who formerly worked at Nasa and the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Facebook is building its Connectivity Lab as a direct challenge to Google's Project Loon…" This video illustrates a potential mix of satellites, drones, and lasers (free-space optics) to improve internet access in undeserved areas.

It did not take long for Google to respond by adding satellites to its proposed mix. The Wall Street Journal reported in May 2014," Google Inc. plans to spend more than $1 billion on a fleet of satellites to extend Internet access to unwired regions of the globe, people familiar with the project said, hoping to overcome financial and technical problems that thwarted previous efforts. Details remain in flux, the people said, but the project will start with 180 small, high-capacity satellites orbiting the earth at lower altitudes than traditional satellites, and then could expand."

Another player threw his hat into the ring in March 2014. The TED blog reports, "[Nicholas] Negroponte’s latest project is using a stationary satellite to connect 100 million people living in rural areas to the internet. The effort will cost $2 billion, he says, which sounds like a lot, but is actually what the United States was spending in Afghanistan in a week." Negroponte is the technology visionary responsible for, among many innovations, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. Scientific American commented, "Negroponte offered few details about the project, citing his partners’ reluctance to make an announcement just yet."

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